PG&E auditors allow one out of 100 trees they check to violate state power line clearance standards, NBC Bay Area has learned.
But critics say one out of 100 is one too many.
PG&E’s CEO has staunchly defended the utility's program, which came under scrutiny after the 2015 Butte Fire that killed two and devastated more than 70,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties.
“Our people are well-trained, our patrols are terrific, we are on time, everything is going great,” Geisha Williams said in July, during a videotaped deposition in the Butte fire litigation.
Last week, Williams reiterated her defense of the company’s effort to manage the 55 million trees that grow near its power lines.
“We also have one of, if not the most comprehensive vegetation management programs in the country,” she told shareholders in the company’s quarterly earnings call last Thursday, with the company spending more than $400 million last year on clearing trees because of the drought.
"Through its Electric Vegetation Management program,” the company said Monday in a statement, “PG&E dedicates hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of workforce hours to help enhance safety and reduce electrical outages and wildfire risks."
But such efforts are now facing scrutiny from state regulators as Cal Fire investigates whether downed power lines started any of the North Bay fires that leveled more than 6,000 homes and businesses.
PG&E had long known that the biggest threat of a tree-caused electrical wildfire was in the North Bay.
NBC Bay Area obtained a 2013 internal analysis of five years of data on vegetation-caused wildfires. It shows the North Bay counties to have nearly a 3 percent risk of a power line sparking a wildfire. The risk was listed as 1 percent elsewhere in PG&E territory.
Amanda Riddle, one of the attorneys in the Butte Fire litigation, contends the company was not ready for that threat.
“What we know is PG&E’s vegetation management program is worth nothing more than the paper it’s written on,” Riddle said.
She said it emerged during the Butte fire litigation that auditors were giving out a passing grade when one out of 100 trees they checked turned out to be too close to power lines under state standards.
She said while that 99 percent ratio may sound good, it has 55 million trees near its lines.
“That means a half-million trees out there could fall into power lines and cause a wildfire,” Riddle said. “And obviously that shouldn’t be acceptable to anybody.”
“You cannot accept any tree ... or any pole, or any component that does not meet minimum standards,” said retired Public Utilities Commission attorney Robert Cagen. “Your safety goes awry.”
But the Butte fire legal battle revealed something more troubling for Riddle. When it failed to reach that 99 percent compliance rate in the area around the fire, she says, the company just expanded the universe of trees covered in a particular audit.
“So what PG&E does when it doesn’t pass, it basically cheats,” Riddle said. “It adds more miles and more miles until it reaches a passing grade.”
PG&E maintained that there was nothing “inherently wrong” about expanding the audit sample size, adding in legal filings that the practice does not jeopardize safety.
Cagen, the veteran regulatory lawyer who handled the case over the 2010 San Bruno pipeline fire, can’t understand that position.
“Failure occurs at the weakest link in the system,” Cagen said. “It doesn’t matter if there’s a hundred good poles, if one pole is going to fail.”
In a statement, PG&E stressed that its audit process is statistically valid and complies with industry best practices.
PG&E said its methodology “provides a reasonable way to monitor compliance levels and audit PG&E’s vegetation management activities.”