By Hudson Sangree
A federal judge on Wednesday delayed his decision to impose extensive new probation conditions on Pacific Gas and Electric in its criminal case for the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion, including a requirement that the utility inspect its entire grid for safety problems before the start of this year’s fire season.
Instead, Judge William Alsup, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, in San Francisco, said he would wait to the see the fire mitigation plan that PG&E files with the California Public Utilities Commission on Feb. 6, in compliance with last year’s SB 901. The judge also asked lawyers representing both explosion and wildfire victims to submit more information on fire safety measures they discussed at Wednesday’s hearing.
The hearing in the San Bruno case came a day after the utility and parent PG&E Corp. filed for bankruptcy, in part because they potentially face billions of dollars in liability for the fatal wine country fires of October 2017 and the Camp Fire in November 2018, which killed 86 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.
On Jan. 9, Alsup issued a tentative ruling in which he said that, unless the parties convinced him otherwise, he would impose new probation conditions on PG&E, which was convicted of six felonies for knowingly violating federal safety rules and obstructing a federal investigation after the 2010 explosion that killed eight people. (See Judge, Governor, CPUC and Protesters Weigh in on PG&E Mess.)
Those new conditions would include requiring the utility to reinspect its entire grid in the coming months and to remove any trees or branches that could contact power lines. In addition, he said PG&E would have to “identify and fix all conductors that might swing together and arc due to slack and/or other circumstances under high-wind conditions.”
The utility “shall identify and fix damaged or weakened poles, transformers, fuses and other connectors; and shall identify and fix any other condition anywhere in its grid similar to any condition that contributed to any previous wildfires,” Alsup wrote.
“These conditions of probation are intended to reduce to zero the number of wildfires caused by PG&E in the 2019 wildfire season. This will likely mean having to interrupt service during high-wind events (and possibly at other times), but that inconvenience, irritating as it will be, will pale by comparison to the death and destruction that otherwise might result from PG&E-inflicted wildfires,” the judge wrote.
PG&E protested the proposed conditions, saying it would cost between $75 billion and $150 billion to comply with the requirements. Federal prosecutors also encouraged the judge to back down and defer to the federal monitor overseeing PG&E in the wake of the San Bruno case. (See PG&E Cleared in Fire that Burned Santa Rosa.)