California Judge to PG&E – Explain Your Role in WILDFIRES
A U.S. judge overseeing a criminal case against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. asked the utility Tuesday to explain any role it may have played in a massive wildfire that destroyed a Northern California town and killed nearly 90 people.
Judge William Alsup in San Francisco directed PG&E in a court filing to respond to a series of questions about power line safety and wildfires. He is overseeing a jury verdict and sentence against PG&E after a natural gas pipeline explosion killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in the San Francisco Bay Area eight years ago.
Investigators have not determined the cause of the wildfire that tore through the town of Paradise, destroying nearly 14,000 homes and killing at least 88 people. Speculation, however, has centered on PG&E, which reported an outage around the time and place the fire ignited.
Another transmission line also malfunctioned a short time later, possibly sparking a second fire.
In Tuesday’s filing, Alsup said he wants to know whether any requirements in the sentence handed down last year for the 2010 pipeline blast in San Bruno “might be implicated” if the reckless operation or maintenance of PG&E power lines ignited a wildfire. He noted that the sentence required PG&E not to engage in any additional crimes.
Another judge had ordered the utility to pay a $3 million fine and run television commercials publicizing its pipeline safety convictions. He also ordered an independent monitor to oversee the safety of its gas pipeline system and put the company on probation for five years.
Aside from the criminal case, the San Bruno catastrophe was a major crisis for PG&E. The utility was fined $1.6 billion by regulators and paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in civil settlements.
PG&E has disclosed to regulators that a transmission line, located near the spot where the Camp Fire ignited, experienced a problem a few minutes before the fire was reported early Nov. 8. Cal Fire continues to investigate the cause of the blaze, which has killed at least 88 people and has become the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.
The utility’s disclosure about the power line, along with a statement to investors that damage claims might overwhelm PG&E’s liability insurance coverage, has sent the company’s stock price tumbling by almost half. It did gain $1.85 a share Tuesday to close at $26.97 on the New York Stock Exchange, but lost 2 cents in after-hours trading as news of the judge’s order began to circulate.
Cal Fire cited PG&E power lines and other equipment for causing at least 16 of the October 2017 wine country fires, which killed 44 people. Cal Fire still hasn’t determined the cause for the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, which killed 24 of the 44 victims.
In response to the judge’s order, the utility said, “Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers, employees, contractors and the communities we serve. We are aware of the court’s notice and are currently reviewing. We continue to focus on assessing infrastructure, safely restoring power where possible, and helping our customers recover and rebuild.”
PG&E has until Dec. 31 to submit written answers to the judge and federal probation officials.
An insurance consultant has estimated that financial damages from the Camp Fire could exceed $7.5 billion. A Democratic assemblyman plans to introduce legislation providing more protection from wildfire losses to PG&E and other utilities — protection that would go beyond the benefits provided by a bill signed into law in September by Gov. Jerry Brown.
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