PG&E’s lawyer acknowledged Wednesday that public safety power shutoffs will likely continue indefinitely, despite earlier company assurances the measures would only last the five to 10 years until the utility finished heightened efforts to cut trees away from lines to prevent wildfires.
PG&E’s lawyer Kevin Orsini told Judge William Alsup that the company’s public safety shutoff program “will likely be a reality in California, in all of California, even after all compliance issues are worked out.”
Orsini cited the “extreme risk we face” including the continuing threat of otherwise healthy trees falling onto power lines during high wind storms.
The company said in a statement that it will focus on making power shutoffs “smaller, smarter and shorter” but that they “will continue to be a necessary tool in our toolbox because of the ongoing risks of wildfire in the state of California.”
That revelation about indefinite power shutoffs came after Judge Alsup – who is overseeing the company’s probation in the federal case stemming from the San Bruno gas explosion -- blasted the company for failing to live up to its commitments to prevent wildfires, including last year’s Zogg fire in Shasta County.
Alsup says he has been pondering what more restrictions he could put on the utility, including a requirement that PG&E account for known system vulnerabilities, not just weather conditions, in deciding when and where to shut off the power.
Alsup said that in the case of the Zogg fire, which claimed four lives, the record shows the utility failed to cut down trees marked for removal back in 2018. One of those trees, PG&E believes, was a grey pine that state fire officials suspect fell onto the line and sparked the fire. But the utility stresses it can’t be sure either that it was, in fact, that tree to blame or if it was one of the trees it says its records show had been marked for removal but were not.
In fact, Orsini told the judge, the trees its inspector had slated for removal back in 2018 had not actually been designated as posing an immediate hazard to the nearby line. That fact, he said, meant that the PG&E would not have been able to deem the line at high risk and thus the judge’s proposed order would not have prevented the Zogg fire.
A skeptical Alsup pressed Orsini on a 2019 PG&E photo of that gray pine, appearing to show the tree leaning directly over the line running at the base of the hillside.
“I think it was reckless,” the judge said, “maybe criminally reckless for PG&E to have left that tree, that gray pine looming. It was leaning at a 60-degree angle over the line,” he said.
Such trees, the judge said, have shallow roots that make them prone to fall in winds. He added the tree had burned once before. “That tree was a clear present danger to the line and whoever made the decision to leave that tree up, should be looked at very carefully.”
“Why didn’t you take it down? Why was that tree left up?” the judge asked PG&E’s lawyer.
Orsini said that although that some trees in the area had been flagged for removal in 2018, possibly including the leaning tree, three teams of inspectors who checked after that did not deem it a hazard or consider it at imminent risk of falling.
“After three sets of inspections, they weren’t identified by anybody as actually needing to be worked, [cut or removed],” the lawyer said.
Clearly frustrated, Alsup told Orsini that the company’s “conscience ought to hurt” for failing to act and prevent the fire.
The judge said he had hoped his order - designed to make the company take into account known vulnerable parts of its system - would help prevent another disaster. But given PG&E’s legal arguments, he said he is no longer sure about that.
“Maybe I have to revise the wording to make it clear that you can’t use slick legalese to get out of from underneath protecting the public?” the judge said. “Mr. Orisini: how may people has PG&E killed in this state on account of its failure to take care of the trees near distribution lines? There’s so many. My heart sinks when I think of the number of people, good ordinary citizens, like the mother and child who died in the Zogg fire … on account of PG&E’s recklessness in not taking down the trees.”
The judge ended the long hearing by stressing he has only one more year to oversee the company and will do whatever he can to make sure that the company follows the law in their final year of its five year probation term.
The judge went on to say, “Since the San Bruno explosion, PG&E has been a terror -- T-E-R-R-O-R -- to the people of the state of California. Why is that?”
Climate change is a part of the issue, as it only makes fire worse, but Alsup stressed, “Climate doesn’t start the wildfires, PG&E starts the wildfires.”
In his time left, Alsup said, “I’m dedicated to do the very best job I can to rehabilitate PG&E to protect the public from further crimes from PG&E.”