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Judge Sees 'A Clear-Cut Pattern Here That PG&E Is Starting These Fires'

January 30, 2019 - 1:25 pm
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By SUDHIN THANAWALA ,  Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal judge in San Francisco found Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. violated its probation in a criminal case stemming from a deadly gas explosion in 2010 and berated the utility Wednesday for not doing enough to prevent its equipment from causing more wildfires.

The utility's return to a U.S. courtroom came a day after it declared bankruptcy, as it tries to convince a judge not to order dramatic steps to try to mitigate wildfires in the future.

U.S. Judge William Alsup upheld a finding that PG&E failed to notify probation officials that a prosecutor's office had opened a full investigation into the utility's role in a 2017 California wildfire.

He also told attorneys for the company that safety was not PG&E's No. 1 priority and the company could have invested more on trimming trees.

"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 is overseeing a criminal conviction against PG&E on pipeline safety charges stemming from a deadly gas line explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2010.

He previously proposed as part of PG&E's probation that it remove or trim all trees that could fall onto its power lines in high-wind conditions and shut off power at times when fire is a risk.

Kate Dyer, an attorney for PG&E, says the company had communicated with probation officials and didn't hear until recently that it had fallen short.

Alsup said his goal was to prevent PG&E equipment from causing any wildfires during the 2019 fire season. PG&E shot back in a court filing last week that the judge's proposals would endanger lives and could cost as much as $150 billion to implement. They would also interfere with the work of federal and state regulators, PG&E said.

Wildfire damage has become a multibillion-dollar liability for the utility. The company filed for bankruptcy Tuesday in the face of hundreds of lawsuits from victims of wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including the nation's deadliest wildfire in a century.

That blaze in November killed at least 86 people and destroyed 15,000 homes in and around the Northern California town of Paradise. The cause is still under investigation, but suspicion fell on PG&E after it reported power line problems nearby around the time the fire broke out.

Alsup noted that state fire investigators have determined PG&E caused eighteen wildfires in 2017, twelve of which they referred for possible criminal prosecution. Last week, however, state investigators determined that the company's equipment was not to blame for a 2017 fire that killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,600 buildings in Northern California wine country. That finding spared PG&E from billions in liability.

Bankruptcy may not spare PG&E from carrying out any orders issued by Alsup. Filing for bankruptcy does not generally put criminal proceedings on hold, said Jared Ellias, a bankruptcy attorney who now teaches at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. But he said the bankruptcy case and the criminal matter before Alsup would overlap a great deal, so it would be "hard to imagine both going forward, as the judges could enter conflicting orders."

The Chapter 11 filing allows PG&E to continue operating while it puts its books in order. It could lead to higher bills for customers and reduce the size of any payouts to fire victims by consolidating all their cases in bankruptcy court.

PG&E said the bankruptcy will allow for an "orderly, fair and expeditious resolution" of wildfire claims.

"Throughout this process, we are fully committed to enhancing our wildfire safety efforts, as well as helping restoration and rebuilding efforts across the communities impacted by the devastating Northern California wildfires," interim CEO John R. Simon said in a statement.

Jeffrey Hammond said he is now pessimistic that he will collect any money from the lawsuit he filed against the company for the loss of his Napa County home in a 2017 wildfire. Investigators say the blaze started when an oak tree fell onto a PG&E power line.

"I'm 76, going to be 77 soon," he said. "And this will take years to sort out."

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Associated Press writer Paul Elias in San Francisco contributed to this report.