February 14, 2019 by Sudhin Thanawala - THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SAN FRANCISCO – A U.S. judge who has berated Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. for its role in California wildfires demanded Thursday that the utility answer more questions about its efforts to clear trees and branches that can fall on its power lines and start fires.
Judge William Alsup asked the utility in a court filing if it was in compliance with a state law requiring it to clear vegetation within certain distances of electric lines.
The judge also questioned a part of the utility’s recently submitted wildfire mitigation plan. Alsup said it appears under the plan that PG&E would take more than 10 years to clear potentially dangerous vegetation where the fire threat is high. He asked PG&E if that timeline was correct.
PG&E spokesman James Noonan said in a statement that the company would respond to Alsup’s order by Feb. 22, the deadline the judge set.
“PG&E shares the court’s commitment to safety and agrees that we all have to work together with urgency to address the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California,” he said.
Alsup is overseeing a criminal conviction against PG&E stemming from a deadly 2010 gas line explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area. As part of the utility’s probation in that case, the judge has proposed requiring it to remove or trim all trees that could fall onto its power lines in high-wind conditions and ordering it to shut off power when fire is a risk regardless of the inconvenience to customers or loss of profit.
Alsup said his goal was to prevent PG&E equipment from causing any wildfires during the 2019 fire season.
The company sought bankruptcy protection in January in the face of billions of dollars in potential liability from wildfires in California in 2017 and 2018.
PG&E shot back in a court filing that Alsup’s proposals would endanger lives and could cost as much as $150 billion to implement.
At a hearing last month, Alsup accused PG&E of enriching shareholders instead of clearing trees and said the company was making excuses to avoid turning off electricity when fire risk is high.
But he held off on immediately ordering PG&E to take any of the dramatic measures he had proposed, saying he would wait to see the company’s wildfire mitigation plan.
In the plan submitted last week, PG&E promised to spend more than $2 billion this year to improve wildfire prevention. The utility said it would step up its tree cutting and trimming and expand its use of blackouts.
Attorneys for wildfire victims said PG&E has been slow and deficient in addressing wildfire risks from its equipment. Alsup in Thursday’s order also asked PG&E to respond to those claims.