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Judge to PG&E: 'What good are inspections that don't find problems?'

The judge handling PG&E's punishment for federal crimes demands answers to dozens of questions ahead of a hearing to add more terms to the company's probation.

SAN FRANCISCO — The federal judge supervising PG&E's punishment for federal felonies demanded names, inside information about what the company knew before it sparked deadly wildfires, and an admission that the utility's inspection problems are cause for concern.

U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup peppered PG&E with 46 specific questions, many of which focused on the fact that an old worn-down hook broke and sparked the deadliest wildfire in California history.

The Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed more than 14,000 homes in and around the town of Paradise in 2018. A state investigation found that PG&E had to fix the same kind of problem in the same location where the Camp Fire sparked years earlier.

ABC10 was able to find similar wear to hooks on other parts of the same power line. The judge demanded to know why PG&E's inspections in the month before the Camp Fire failed to find the wear on the hooks when the company was able to find dozens of examples after the fire.

"It is obvious from the nature of the C-hook gouging that this issue would have
been visible to any inspector who got close enough to see the condition of the C-hook," Alsup wrote.

Alsup demanded that PG&E send him the "the ten most pertinent emails, memos, text messages or other documents (including electronic documents) that show the true extent to which PG&E knew before the Camp Fire that C-hook wear was a safety problem."

Alsup also asked more questions about the 2019 Kincade Fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes in Sonoma County during the October 2019 power blackouts, which were supposed to prevent wildfires.

The cause of the Kincade Fire is officially under investigation, but PG&E has acknowledged that a jumper cable detached from its high-voltage transmission tower where the fire started. It's the same kind of equipment that sparked the Camp Fire.

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Alsup demanded names and contact information for the inspectors that climbed that tower in the months before the fire started and accused PG&E of dodging his previous question about whether the failure to locate the problem in advance is worth worrying about.

"Shouldn't we be concerned that the inspections conducted by PG&E failed to detect the potential detachment on the tower in question," Alsup asked. "What good are inspections that don’t find problems?"

PG&E's answers are due Feb. 18, the day before it appears in Alsup's court to defend itself against possible new probation terms that would require the company to hire more employees to trim trees for fire safety.

For more PG&E coverage, follow ABC10's Brandon Rittiman on Facebook and Twitter.

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