SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As part of PG&E’s criminal probation, a federal judge ordered a team to check on the utility’s vegetation management around its infrastructure.
What they’ve found so far isn’t good.
PG&E is in the midst of a five-year probation for felony convictions related to the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion, which killed eight people. PG&E was found guilty of five counts of willfully breaking federal gas pipeline safety laws and one count of obstructing the federal investigation into the disaster.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup oversees the utility’s probation, which has been complicated by deadly wildfires in 2017 and 2018 caused by the utility's equipment.
In response to the wildfires, Alsup ordered a so-called monitor team to conduct vegetation management field inspections on PG&E’s infrastructure. In other words, an outside group is providing oversight on how well PG&E is clearing trees and brush from close proximity to power lines—a hazard that can spark wildfires.
In a July 26 report made public on Wednesday, the monitor shared its findings with Alsup. It found two main issues: missed vegetation hazards and poor record-keeping.
In less than three months of conducting oversight, the team had scoped out more than 70 miles of distribution lines. They found “at least one dubious tree” in about half of the inspections, the report said. “Many contained more.”
In an oversight inspection period stretching from early May to early July, the monitor found 2,670 "risk trees" that hadn't been noted by PG&E. Risk trees are 10 particular tree species that PG&E “has determined have historically been involved in most ignitions.” They also found 524 instances where tree branches were overhanging to closely to a power line, 61 hazard trees and 25 situations where vegetation was too close to the line.
The photo above from the oversight team's report shows a problem the team found while inspecting PG&E's vegetation management work. The caption says the leaves were "within inches of the primary conductor and with evidence that tree leaves had been burned from contact with the primary conductor in a Tier 3 high fire-threat district."
The large number of missed problems by PG&E's crews, the report says, "suggests that there may be gaps in PG&E’s training of pre-inspectors and/or tree workers, or that the existing training is not sufficiently effective.”
The inspections “are generating significant, actionable findings for PG&E,” the report says. “The VM [vegetation management] inspections are not only revealing individual trees that are missed, including three active wildfire threats in high-risk areas, but they also reflect gaps in processes...Not only is PG&E falling short of its EVM [enhanced vegetation management] goals for the year, but the quality of the completed work is questionable.”
Also, the monitor reported finding “systematic record-keeping deficiencies” and made a point of noting, in the same breath, that “five of PG&E’s felony convictions from the 2016 trial related to record-keeping defects concerning its gas operations.”
“PG&E’s systems for recording, tracking, and assigning EVM work are not reliable or consistent and are likely contributing to the identified quality issues," the report says.
Responding to ABC10's request for comment about this new report, a PG&E spokesperson said, "We share the court’s focus on reducing wildfire risk in California. The safety of our customers and communities we serve is our most important responsibility, and we are committed to assessing our programs and infrastructure to further enhance safety and help protect all of the customers we serve from the ever-increasing threat of wildfires."
In an April 3 order in which Alsup spelled out new conditions of probation for PG&E, the judge described the role of the monitor, saying the oversight team “shall assess PG&E’s wildfire mitigation and wildfire safety work, including through regular, unannounced inspections of PG&E’s vegetation management efforts and equipment inspection, enhancement, and repair efforts.”
Per state law, PG&E has an approved wildfire mitigation safety plan, which includes vegetation management around its infrastructure. The monitor’s court-appointed work includes inspecting how well PG&E is sticking to that plan, as well as checking out “areas where enhanced vegetation management has yet to occur.”
The monitor is also tasked with interviewing PG&E employees and contractors out in the field.
Meanwhile, PG&E is ordered to maintain “traceable, verifiable, accurate, and complete records of its vegetation management efforts” and report its progress to the monitor each month, plus be ready for a surprise inspection at any moment.
In its conclusion, the monitor said it hopes to see PG&E tighten up its adherence to its vegetation management plan.
“Over the coming months, the monitor hopes to see downward trends in the findings of potential exceptions, and to observe PG&E implement positive process changes and enhancements.”
PG&E, for its part, has found the inspections useful, the report says.
"PG&E’s service area includes more than 120 million trees with the potential to grow or fall into our overhead power lines," PG&E told ABC10 in response to the report. "While we have made progress in many areas to further enhance wildfire safety including vegetation management work, we acknowledge that we have more work to do. We are pursuing a range of solutions to help make the energy system safer for the customers we serve."
The report noted that this oversight process is helping PG&E.
“[PG&E] has told the monitor team that the reports and observations arising out of the inspections provide prompt, useful, specific, and actionable feedback,” the report says. “The VM inspections have also revealed public safety hazards (for example, trees in contact with power lines in high-risk areas) that the monitor team has escalated to PG&E in real-time, and PG&E has immediately mitigated.”
The monitor will be providing more reports like this to Judge Alsup in the future.
"We continue to work transparently and cooperatively with the Federal Monitor and his team," a PG&E spokesperson told ABC10 this week. "We appreciate their work evaluating compliance with our Wildfire Safety Plan’s Enhanced Vegetation Management program. We understand and recognize the serious concerns raised by the Monitor and we are taking immediate action to address these issues, which are consistent with our own internal reviews."
Meanwhile, Alsup is ordering PG&E to respond to this report by noon on Tuesday, Sept. 3. A hearing on the matter is currently set for 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 17.
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