SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A federal judge scolded PG&E officials Wednesday, harshly criticizing them for falling short on the utility’s wildfire mitigation plan and threatening to withhold their executive bonuses.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup delivered a harsh rebuke of utility during a court hearing to review how well PG&E has complied with the safety plan terms of a five-year criminal probation imposed after its natural gas lines blew up a San Bruno neighborhood and killed eight people in 2010.
Alsup blasted the utility for its abysmal track record since the probation began in January 2017. He cited PG&E’s role in the deadly wildfires that have raged through Northern California since the San Bruno disaster.
Failures of the utility’s equipment and power lines have been blamed for several of the largest fires in Northern California — massive blazes that have razed entire communities, killed more than 100 residents and destroyed thousands of homes.
“I am going to do everything I can to protect this state from more death and destruction from this convicted felon,” Alsup said of PG&E.
The judge was also considering a second possible order that would restrict bonuses for supervisors until PG&E complies with the wildfire safety mitigation plan, demanding to know when the utility will be hiring legions of tree trimmers to clear its lines from overhanging trees and brush.
“Give me a number of new contract tree trimmers to be hired and a date by which you can achieve that, and I might be willing to accept that,” he said.
PG&E attorney Kevin Orsini argued it is more efficient for PG&E to work with professional contractors. He said the number of contract tree trimmers working in PG&E’s 70,000-square-mile service territory grew from about 1,400 at the beginning of 2019 to 5,437 at the end of the year.
“The reality is it’s a human system. It can never be 100 percent perfect,” Orsini told the judge. “That doesn’t mean we don’t strive for perfection.”
Alsup said he plans to order PG&E to expand its tree-trimming force from roughly 5,400 contractors to 6,500 to help prevent branches, leaves and other vegetation from falling into its power lines and sparking more fires.
He did not set a specific timeline for the utility to add tree trimmers, giving PG&E until March 2 to provide more information about its logistical challenges in doing so.
The Santa Rosa Fire Department says it is working closely with PG&E to identify trouble spots and the utility company has acted swiftly to take care of the problem.
One man who lost his home in the 2017 Tubbs Fire is fighting for a new settlement with PG&E, saying the $13.5 billion settlement doesn’t start to cover what he lost in the fire that burned over 5,600 homes.
Will Abrams feels the current settlement lacks a concrete plan to prevent future mass wildfires.
“This is supposed to be about restructuring PG&E so it’s providing its providing security for Californians and it doesn’t even approximate that at all,” Abrams said.
Since the fire, Abrams has been fighting on behalf of the fire victims. The main thing he wants to accomplish is to change PG&E’s financial structure so the company doesn’t answer to its shareholders but is dictated by reducing wildfire risks.
“The understanding that if we don’t change course, that there will be greater risks and we see that all around us,” Abrams added.
PG&E has issued a statement saying, “Throughout the Chapter 11 process, our focus has remained on getting wildfire victims paid, continuing to deliver safe and reliable electric and gas service, and implementing needed changes across our business to improve our operations for the long term.”
But the company also has come under fire from the California Public Utilities Commission this week, threatening to take away the company’s license if safety standards are not met.
A federal judge did rule against undoing the $13.5 billion settlement.
KPIX 5’s Andrea Nakano contributed to this report.