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Judge calls PG&E ‘a recalcitrant criminal’ during probation hearing

A federal judge in San Francisco called PG&E “a recalcitrant criminal” at a hearing on Thursday, but delayed ruling on whether to impose additional strict probation conditions aimed at preventing catastrophic wildfires.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup is overseeing PG&E’s probation for its conviction in a criminal pipeline safety case stemming from a fatal natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010.

As part of the probation, he announced in April plans to order PG&E to hire its own crew of inspectors to:

  • Search for trees in danger of falling on electrical lines
  • Document the age of every piece of equipment on its high-voltage transmission lines and towers
  • Videotape inspections of the towers
Johan Jönsson (Julle) PG&E announced a planned power shutoff impacting portions of 34 counties in Northern and Central California as precaution for dry, high winds expected early Wednesday, October 9, 2019.

At the start of Thursday’s two-and-a-half hour telephonic hearing, Alsup said:

“If there ever was a corporation that deserved to go to prison, it is PG&E for the number of people it has killed in California.”

The judge was referring to fatal wildfires that were sparked by branches and trees falling on electrical lines in the North Bay in 2017 and by a broken hook on a transmission tower in Butte County in 2018, which resulted in the Camp Fire and the deaths of 84 people.

The judge said:

“I’m going to do everything in my power to protect the people of California.”

PG&E attorney Kevin Orsini argued that the utility’s inspection system has now been transformed and contended the proposed conditions would interfere with the California Public Utilities Commission’s regulatory oversight.

Alsup said PG&E’s arguments on inspection issues over the past few months were like a “broken record.”

But after CPUC attorney Christine Hammond said the agency was concerned the conditions would reduce its “ability to pivot” to address problems, Alsup said he would be willing to reconsider the conditions, if the CPUC could reassure him that inspections were being improved.

The judge said:

“If the PUC were to say ‘we’ve got it under control,’ I’ll go along with that.”

Sonoma County Sheriff's Office The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, Calif. burned 75,415 acres and was 15 percent contained the morning of Tuesday, October 29, 2019. Another round of strong winds is expected to hit the North Bay later Tuesday, posing a challenge to firefighters.

He asked Hammond to submit a brief in two weeks describing improvements in wildfire safety.

Alsup also ordered PG&E and prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, who handled the pipeline safety case, to file a brief within three weeks on possible improvement agreements. He said he may then hold another hearing before deciding whether to impose new probation conditions.

The hearing came on the same day that the CPUC approved PG&E’s plan for reorganizing its finances, paying debts including wildfire claims and reforming its management structure in order to exit from its Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The CPUC approval is one of two requirements for PG&E to be eligible by June 30 for an insurance fund established by the state for future wildfire claims. The other requirement is the approval of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali, who is currently holding a week-long confirmation hearing.

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