Stephen Ellison

PG&E Outlines Its Wildfire Safety Efforts For Federal Judge

PG&E on Tuesday sought to assure an anxious federal judge that it is actively addressing a court appointed monitor’s critical report on its ongoing wildfire prevention efforts.

Outside court, PG&E’s CEO Bill Johnson reiterated what its lawyers told Judge William Alsup – that the company has upgraded training, inspections and quality control. The company also says it will only rely on preemptive power shutoffs as a last resort.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure we are well prepared for this fire season,” Johnson said, adding that the company now has a staff of 4,500 dedicated to tree management efforts.

Those efforts include inspecting and cutting down at-risk species as well as mending aging equipment. The utility says it’s also tracking weather to determine when it may need to preemptively cut power to customers to reduce the wildfire threat.

“4,500 is more people,” Johnson said, “for example than it takes for us to run the entire gas system – the 'G' of PG&E – so this is a huge effort. And we’re learning as we go.”

That learning curve recently came under fire in a report by a federally appointed safety monitor. The monitor is tasked with overseeing safety efforts under the terms of PG&E’s probation in the San Bruno pipeline explosion.

Mark Filip, who is in charge of the monitoring effort, identified more than 2,600 apparently hazardous trees the company missed. Filip also found at least one case when a contract crew falsely certified it had cut a tree limb threatening a power line, when inspections showed it hadn’t.

On Tuesday, PG&E’s main lawyer Kevin Orsini reassured Alsup the contractor involved in that case has been dismissed. He also said most of the problems were the product of confusion and growing pains given the unprecedented scope of the campaign.

In court Tuesday, Filip appeared cautiously optimistic about the company’s progress since his late-July report.

“They are working hard, they are aggressive,” Filip told Judge Alsup. “They are not there yet at all, and things need to get better.”

After the hearing, Johnson also acknowledged that poor recordkeeping still poses an ongoing safety concern.

“One of the things we are doing every day is we are looking hard at records,” Johnson said. “So as I say, we are turning every rock over to find out where we have gaps.”

Regulators have previously blamed PG&E’s shoddy records in the San Bruno gas explosion in 2010. Johnson cautioned that closing gaps that have emerged in the company’s electrical network will take time.

“We keep looking historically, and frankly we keep finding things, and frankly I think we’ll continue to find things for a while,” he said. “I’m much more confident about what we’re doing going forward.”

Alsup said he was encouraged by what he heard and thanked the company for its efforts to prevent another disaster. He also ordered another briefing in late December, once the worst of the fire season has passed.

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