A scathing report by a federal safety monitor warns about “material shortcomings” in PG&E’s tree-line clearance efforts and tower inspections heading into the heart of fire season.
In a letter to Judge William Alsup, Mark Filip credited the company with making progress in clearing trees away from power lines last year, but said that progress has since lagged.
Among what he called “material shortcomings,” Filip cited recent problems in quality control related to identifying which trees posed a risk to power lines.
While the company had been able to reduce the number of missed problem trees to about one per mile as of late last year, recent audits suggest PG&E currently misses nearly five problem trees per mile on average, the monitor told the judge. Half of those missed trees posed a serious hazard of falling onto the line, the monitor said.
Filip noted in one case, a tree that had singed leaves from coming into contact with a power line had been slated for removal since mid-August. But it took his office going to company management – who said they were unaware of the issue – to get that tree removed this month.
The monitor also questioned whether the company was living up to its own risk model standards, which call for targeting areas where its system is most vulnerable to sparking wildfires.
Filip noted that although the company carried out 1,000 detailed climbing inspections of its high voltage transmission towers, those were in comparatively low fire risk areas. It failed to climb nearly 1,000 towers in the higher fire threat areas, he said, carrying out less comprehensive inspections instead.
The monitor blamed “human error, lack of oversight, miscommunications, and failure to appropriately escalate matters,” for the lapses.
In an order issued Tuesday, Judge Alsup commented that those were “the same problems that offender PG&E has long had.’’ He gave the company until Nov. 3 to respond in detail.
PG&E said in a statement Wednesday it welcomes the monitor’s input and continues “to evaluate, evolve and refine our approaches to further reduce wildfire risk and get better this year and beyond.”
The company stressed that last year was the first year it had dramatically ramped up its tree trimming and electric inspections.
PG&E managed to inspect every part of its electrical system in six months, one third the normal time, the company said, and brought in 6,000 workers to get the job done, “which was an unprecedented undertaking in our industry.”
“We understand that we didn’t get everything right the first time during 2019 and there are many lessons learned that we have incorporated in our ongoing work plans. We have also incorporated the Monitor’s important feedback into our current efforts and future plans moving forward.”