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PG&E’s criminal probation is ending, but the company remains a ‘menace to California’

‘We remain trapped in a tragic era of PG&E wildfires,’ judge says

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Dixie Fire Nearly Contained After Burning Almost One Million Acres
A burned tree is seen through the window of a business that was destroyed by the Dixie Fire on September 24, 2021 in Greenville, California. 
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Embattled California utility PG&E ends a five-year felony probation period tomorrow that failed to rehabilitate the company, according to the US District Court judge that oversaw the probation.

“In these five years, PG&E has gone on a crime spree and will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California,” US District Judge William Alsup wrote in a scathing report released days ahead of the probationary period that lifts at midnight.

The company was placed on probation in 2017 when it was convicted of six felony crimes connected to one of its natural gas pipelines that exploded in 2010, killing eight people. Since a company can’t go to prison for committing a crime, PG&E faced a $3 million fine and the maximum length of probation.

Since then, PG&E has caused even more devastation, Alsup writes. While on probation, according to Alsup’s report, PG&E was responsible for at least 31 blazes that killed 113 people and scorched 23,956 homes and buildings. The deadliest and most destructive was the 2018 Camp Fire, which burned the town of Paradise to the ground and for which PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 involuntary manslaughter charges. PG&E faces dozens more charges for other blazes.

Systemic problems at PG&E are to blame for the devastation, according to Alsup, who described how the utility neglects to clear hazardous trees and vegetation near its power lines. “Virtually all” of the wildfires caused by PG&E distribution lines involved such trees, which the California Public Resource Code mandates that PG&E manage. The terms of PG&E’s probation also included removing or trimming trees that might come in contact with its equipment.

While Alsup described PG&E’s backlog of hazardous trees and vegetation as “staggering at the outset of probation,” even now, the utility is seven years behind on maintenance. The company relies on outside contractors to do the job of clearing dangerous vegetation away from its power lines, then points the finger at those contractors when problems occur. Alsup posits that PG&E’s use of contractors helps the company cut costs while also allowing PG&E “to manufacture a strategic defense in wildfire litigation.”

The company needs to hire and train its own staff arborists, the judge added, expressing his “regret” that the court only required PG&E to hire 30 vegetation inspectors while it was under probation.

As a result of PG&E’s equipment triggering blazes, in 2019, the company started to implement preemptive blackouts. But while these outages prevent fires, they also cause other problems for residents left in the dark. Since facing pressure from the court to begin implementing preemptive power outages several years ago, Alsup says the company has “watered down” its criteria for cutting off power ahead of windstorms and is reluctant to do so even when hazardous conditions pose major fire risks.

The Dixie fire that raged through northern California last year, ultimately becoming the second largest in state history, was a stunning example of both problems. PG&E moved slowly to de-energize a circuit, even though there were signs that its distribution line was in trouble before employees arrived to figure out what was wrong. It turned out that a tree was leaning on an energized line; it overheated and burst into the first flames of the Dixie fire. State firefighting agency Cal Fire found PG&E at fault for the conflagration in an investigation completed earlier this month.

“We acknowledge that we have more work to do,” PG&E spokesperson James Noonan said in an email to The Verge today. But Noonan added that the utility has become a “fundamentally safer company” over the course of its probation.

Alsup feels differently. “We remain trapped in a tragic era of PG&E wildfires,” the judge wrote in his report.