Federal officials on Tuesday cited newly filed criminal charges against PG&E in the 2019 Kincade Fire as a basis to find the company has violated the terms of its probation over the San Bruno gas explosion.
In a court summons issued to the utility Tuesday, U.S. Probation Officer Jennifer Hutchings declared "there is probable cause to believe that the company under probation violated the general condition of probation that they not commit another federal, state or local crime."
Hutchings cited the five felonies and 28 misdemeanor charges lodged earlier this month related to the Oct. 23, 2019 Kincade Fire near Geyserville, which left six firefighters injured and triggered the largest evacuation in Sonoma County history.
The summons requires PG&E representatives to appear before U.S. Judge William Alsup on May 4. It marks the second probation violation proceeding.
Alsup earlier found the company in violation for its failure to fully notify probation authorities about an out of court settlement with prosecutors over a fire in Butte County.
If a new violation is upheld, it is still not clear what further action Alsup could take against the company, beyond adding more conditions to its probation. In earlier court filings, lawyers on both sides have argued the judge is powerless to extend PG&E’s term beyond the five years set back in 2017 when it was convicted over the 2010 gas explosion. The five-year term is currently set to expire early next year.
"We are aware of the probation court's order and will comply with the summons," the utility said in a statement late Tuesday that stressed the company sympathizes with injured firefighters and other victims of the fire.
"We've previously stated we accept Cal Fire's finding that a PG&E transmission line caused the fire, but we do not believe there was any criminal activity," the company said in the statement, concluding: "We remain committed to working to further reduce wildfire risk on our energy system."
While Sonoma prosecutors have blamed the fire on the company’s recklessness, they have not provided specifics. The Cal Fire report, obtained by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit last year, blames the company’s failure to properly decommission a branch of the 230,000-volt transmission line that investigators said had once fed a nearby geothermal plant, near Geyserville.
Cal Fire concluded that back in 2001, the utility crews disconnected a clamp that kept the live power line secured from high winds. Although the plant was shuttered, the line was kept energized. It was allowed to sway unsecured some two decades before it finally broke, triggering the fire, Cal Fire found.
The summons was issued soon after the company’s arraignment on the Kincade case.
At a hearing Tuesday afternoon, a lawyer for the utility told a Sonoma County judge that by mid-May, the company intends to challenge the legal basis for the two dozen air quality-related charges. The company did not plead to any of the charges.
The lawyer, Brad Brian, asked for time to pursue that challenge and a new hearing has been set for May 25.
A victim of the Tubbs fire, Will Abrams, said he was not surprised by the company’s stance that it was not to blame in the Kincade Fire, given its track record.
"They have not accounted for the failures of past fires because they are in this liability avoidance mode – we didn’t do it, we didn’t see it -- plausible deniability, whatever the term is, but they are avoiding dealing with their failures," Abrams said.
In a separate briefing on Tuesday, PG&E officials warned regulators with the state Public Utilities Commission that more power shutoffs are inevitable under Alsup’s currently proposed additional wildfire safety conditions to its probation term.
But the utility suggested the increase in outages will still not match the scale of the 2019 shutoffs.
PG&E told regulators that accounting for trees tall enough and near enough to hit power lines – as currently envisioned by Alsup -- could result in an average of five more hours of shutoffs per year, from an average of 24 hours to 29 hours of lost power. The company also recently submitted data suggesting those additional shutoffs could cut the risk of danger by some 94%.