According to the U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, who was charged with overseeing the probation of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, the five-year felony probation period which the natural gas and electricity giant recently finished didn’t help rehabilitate the company.
Judge Alsup released a report shortly before the company’s probationary period ended. That report stated that PG&E was going to continue being a menace to the state of California. Back in 2017, the company was first placed on probation when it was convicted of six felony crimes. The crimes were connected to one of the PG&E natural gas pipelines that ended up exploding in San Bruno in 2010, killing eight people. Since companies aren’t able to go to prison when they commit crimes, PG&E was faced with the maximum length of a probation period, as well as a $3 million fine.
Since the probation started, the company has only caused more harm, according to Judge Alsup. PG&E has, for example, been responsible for over 30 blazes that have killed over 100 people and scorched nearly 24,000 buildings and homes. The most destructive of these fires was the 2018 Camp Fire, during which the town of Paradise was burned to the ground. In that situation, the company pleaded guilty to 84 involuntary manslaughter charges, and it is currently facing dozens of other charges for different fires. According to the judge, the main reason for the PG&E fires is a systemic problem: the company tends to avoid clearing hazardous vegetation and trees that stand near power lines. Practically all of the wildfires that have been caused by the company’s distribution lines have involved those types of hazardous trees and vegetation, which, according to the California Public Resource Code, PG&E is mandated to manage. Another term of the probation period for the company was the removal and trimming of any trees that might come in contact with PG&E equipment.
According to Judge Alsup, despite the company being on probation, the backlog of work needed to be done on vegetation and trees is seven years behind. This is because PG&E is reliant on outside contractors to clear dangerous vegetation away from power lines. When issues arise, the company points fingers at those contractors. Judge Alsup alleges the company is using contractors in an attempt to cut costs and to create a strategic defense during any wildfire litigation. Back in 2019, as a result of the company’s equipment triggering fires, it started to implement preemptive blackouts. Unfortunately, the strategy causes problems for the residents who are left without power.
According to the judge, PG&E should hire and train a staff of arborists. During the probation period, the company was only required to hire 30 vegetation inspectors, which wasn’t enough. A spokesperson for PG&E, James Noonan, stated there’s a lot more work that the company has to do. However, the utility strategy helped PG&E become a safer company during the probation period. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of other fires that have been triggered by PG&E equipment. This might change in the future if the company continues to face pressure from the court.