SAN FRANCISCO — NOTE: Reporter Brandon Rittiman leads ABC10's FIRE - POWER - MONEY reporting project. If you have a tip that could help reveal more about California's crisis with utilities and wildfires, please send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
During PG&E's federal probation hearing, US District Judge William Alsup denounced the death and destruction caused by the electric company, pointing to multiple disasters that have killed at least 139 people since 2010.
“PG&E has been a terror,” Alsup told the company’s lawyers. “T-E-R-R-O-R... to the people of California.”
The judge called the hearing in response to the September 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people when the fire broke out beneath a PG&E power line on a windy day. The company switched off power lines elsewhere for safety reasons.
“Your conscience ought to hurt," Alsup told PG&E attorney Kevin Orsini.
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PG&E told the judge that it believes the tree suspected of hitting its line and sparking the fire “may” have been marked for removal by its contractors, but never cut down.
“It was reckless,” Alsup said. “Why didn’t you take it down? Why was that tree left up?"
The hearing was held to debate a plan the judge has to modify PG&E’s probation, intended to make PG&E factor in whether trees have been cut and trimmed as required by law when making its shutoff decisions. Orsini told the judge that his proposal would not have prevented the Zogg Fire.
Alsup expressed an interest in imposing more new conditions of probation on PG&E, including a set of proposed probation terms from lawyers who represent PG&E customers who have called on the judge to make PG&E improve the records it keeps related to safety work.
The electric company is currently on probation for its six federal felonies from the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion, which killed eight people. That probation is set to expire in January 2022. During summer 2020, PG&E pleaded guilty in to 84 felony counts of manslaughter and another felony for sparking the 2018 Camp Fire. Because those crimes were charged in state court, additional probation time was not imposed.
PG&E provided photos of the gray pine tree suspected of hitting its power line and sparking the Zogg Fire. In an inspection before the fire, the tree is seen leaning in the direction of the power line. The company’s lawyers would not agree with the judge’s finding that it was a so-called “hazard tree” that needed to be removed to ensure safety, arguing that it needed to await CAL FIRE’s report on the cause of the fire.
Alsup wanted to know how PG&E might better evaluate the condition of its trees and the wind speed in fire country to make its shutoff decisions. A recent ABC10 investigation found PG&E lacked windspeed data in the area where the Zogg Fire started.
The judge also expressed concern that PG&E’s state government regulators and the Newsom administration haven’t cracked down on PG&E in the wake of the company’s deadly behavior.
"At every turn in the process, PG&E has resisted what this court has tried to do in order to protect the public," Alsup said, adding he’ll make his next move in the coming weeks and that he may call another hearing. He then vowed to “do the best I can to protect the public” in the year of PG&E’s probation that remains.
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