Judge threatens to order PG&E to hire more tree trimmers for California wildfire safety

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PG&E; workers dissemble broken power lines after the Camp fire ripped through Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2018. - Joel Angel Juarez/Zuma Press/TNS

The federal judge overseeing PG&E Corp.’s criminal probation is considering ordering the beleaguered utility to order more tree trimmers in a move designed to enhance wildfire safety.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup late Thursday told PG&E to explain why it’s still struggling to remove hazardous trees and limbs that could brush up against power lines and spark new fires.

Alsup, in a written decision, said he might order PG&E to hire “sufficient crews and equipment to inspect and to trim and remove all vegetation” to comply with California law and the company’s own “wildfire mitigation plan.”

A day earlier, PG&E gave Alsup a lengthy written report explaining that while it’s made considerable progress over the past year, it’s still fallen short on state mandates for tree trimming.

Although the utility completed work on more than 1 million trees last year, it still has 22,000 trees that remain hazardous or sit “within the four-foot radial clearance area,” its lawyers wrote the judge.

The company said its vast service territory, with 100,000 miles of power lines, makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to “certify perfect compliance.” It’s been hamstrung in part by shortages of “equipment, materials and qualified personnel,” it said.

“PG&E recognizes the importance of proper vegetation management in reducing wildfire risk and is taking a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach that aims to achieve as close to the standard of perfect compliance as feasible,” its lawyers wrote.

PG&E’s report roughly dovetailed with an audit of its tree-trimming program conducted last summer by a court-appointed monitor. The monitor found trees still growing close to power lines; in one instance, a contractor working for PG&E falsified records.

Alsup oversees PG&E’s probation following the deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, and has been sparring with PG&E executives over safety issues since the company’s faulty transmission equipment ignited the disastrous Camp Fire in November 2018. He accompanied PG&E executives when they met with community leaders last summer in Paradise. The Camp Fire destroyed much of the Butte County town and killed 85 people.

Wildfire safety is key to PG&E’s future.

PG&E was driven into bankruptcy by the billions in liabilities created by the Camp Fire and the October 2017 wine country fires. Gov. Gavin Newsom rejected PG&E’s bankruptcy reorganization plan last month because he said the company hasn’t done enough to improve public safety. The utility is revamping the plan.

In his decision Thursday, the judge also took issue with PG&E Chief Executive Bill Johnson’s comments last fall — during a series of deliberate blackouts that cut power to hundreds of thousands of Californians — that it could take a decade to make the electric grid safe enough from wildfires to avoid further power outages.

A hearing on the tree-trimming issue is set for Feb. 19 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

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©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)