SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A federal judge harshly reprimanded PG&E for violating its probation during a court hearing Wednesday morning, telling the utility’s attorneys that safety is clearly not its top priority.
The hearing comes a day after PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the face of an estimated $50 billion in liabilities from it’s role in fatal Northern California wildfires over the past two years, including the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in the last century.
Judge William Alsup is presiding over the criminal conviction against PG&E in the wake of the deadly 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.
Judge Alsup made it clear he was not in the mood to hear excuses from PG&E, berating the company multiple times during the first hours of the hearing.
The judge set the tone early, saying PG&E is a convicted felon was already on probation for the disaster in San Bruno when the utility was found to have caused multiple blazes in the 2017 Wine Country fires.
“To my mind, there’s a very clear-cut pattern here that PG&E is starting these fires,” Alsup said. “More money could have been spent. It’s not enough to just come in here and say, ‘judge we’re trying to mitigate it.’ That’s platitudes.”
Alsup said that state fire investigators have determined PG&E caused eighteen wildfires in 2017, twelve of which they referred for possible criminal prosecution.
“What can we do? Continue business as usual? Kill more people by starting more fires?” asked Judge Alsup.
However, last week Cal Fire announced that the private electrical lines and not the utility’s equipment was to blame for the deadly Tubbs Fire that burned a total of 36,807 acres, destroying 5,636 structures and resulting in 22 fatalities and one firefighter injury.
That fire was one of the most destructive blazes in what Cal Fire referred to in the announcement as the October 2017 Fire Siege.
Additionally, PG&E’s probation officer said the company was not forthcoming about starting the Honey Fire in 2017, and thus violated their probation.
The judge agreed and will sentence PG&E for violating its probation at a later date.
Alsup continued to browbeat the PG&E attorney as the hearing progressed, pointing out that the company paid $4.5 billion in dividends to stockholders in the past five years when those funds could’ve been spent to trimming trees from power lines to improve safety.
The court-appointed monitor said it would take years to trim all the trees and that there aren’t enough tree trimmers to do the job.
The judges didn’t buy it, saying with fire season just five months away, PG&E should get Calfire to help or risk ending up being responsible for more fires.
Judge Alsup said he wants something in place by the official start of the fire season on June 21 to make sure PG&E does not commit any more crimes.
But he deferred making any ruling until after he receives additional reports and briefs during the next three weeks, and also indicated he may scale down his original proposed order. If issued, an order would be a new condition of the utility’s probation in a federal criminal pipeline safety case.
PG&E released a statement regarding the hearing Wednesday afternoon. It appears in full below.
“PG&E shares the court’s commitment to safety and agrees with the urgency that we all have to work together to reduce the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California.
We look forward to working with the court and probation on how we might enhance our communications efforts.
We understand that PG&E must play a leading role in implementing change that will help further mitigate wildfire risk and have taken a number of important and meaningful actions to do so.”
Outside the courtroom, representatives for those who lost homes and loved ones in the wildfires were happy to hear the judge’s reprimand of PG&E.
“He sent a loud message that he wants a solution and he wants people to collaborate on doing it right. And he wants to do it immediately,” said wildfire survivors’ attorney James Pitre.
The Utility Reform Network (TURN) spokesman Mark Toney said he wants the company to be placed in receivership.
“I am not convinced that the current management of PG&E, who have shown themselves incapable of following and complying with the basic safety rules, will be able to follow judge Alsup’s new rule,” explained Toney.
The judge’s decision on what federal mandates he’ll issue will be affected by the wildfire prevention plan PG&E issues on February 6th in accordance with SB 901, a law that passed last year and had some critics calling it a PG&E bailout.