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Court monitor slams PG&E for falling behind on wildfire tree trimming across California

By Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - PG&E Corp. is still missing dangerous trees in its quest to keep limbs from crashing into power lines and igniting major wildfires, a court-appointed investigator has found.

Mark Filip, a Chicago lawyer who is the court-appointed monitor in the utility's criminal probation, reported this week that the utility's "enhanced vegetation management" program appeared to backslide this year after making strides in late 2019.

"Although there were meaningful improvements within 2019, that improvement appears to have, at best, plateaued, and perhaps actual regression has occurred," Filip wrote in a report to U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco.

The monitor, a partner in the Kirkland & Ellis law firm in Chicago, said the number of "missed hazard trees," after declining late last year after a critical report, has risen again.

In one case, Filip said his team spotted just three weeks ago a tree that was supposed to have been pulled down in mid-August. The leaves on the tree actually made contact with utility equipment and the leaves were singed. The tree has since been removed.

He also said PG&E's equipment inspection program appears to be flawed and badly prioritized. The company struggled to conduct in-depth inspections on transmission towers and other equipment "in the highest threat areas," but did complete rigorous inspections on transmission towers in regions of the state where the threats aren't as severe, he wrote.

That underscores the company's "shortcomings in executing work in a manner that prioritizes wildfire risk reduction," he wrote. The tower inspections in the severe threat zones are due to be done by Thanksgiving, he said.

 

Alsup ordered PG&E on Tuesday to respond to the lawyer's findings by Nov. 3.

The company said late Tuesday: "PG&E shares the court's focus on safety and recognizes that we must take a leading role in reducing the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California. We're aware of the monitor's letter and related order from the court. We are currently reviewing and plan to respond by the deadline given by the court. We continue to evaluate, evolve and refine our approaches to further reduce wildfire risk and meet our Wildfire Mitigation Plan objectives."

PG&E is under probation following its conviction on felony charges in the fatal 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno. Alsup has been pressuring Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to clamp down on wildfire hazards ever since the company was blamed for a host of mega-fires in 2017 and 2018, including the Camp Fire in Paradise.

Those fires drove California's largest utility into bankruptcy in early 2019. The utility successfully emerged from bankruptcy in June 2020 but remains under intense scrutiny over its safety practices. PG&E could face liabilities of as much as $600 million in last year's Kincade Fire in Sonoma County and is under investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in connection with the Zogg Fire in Shasta County, which killed four people last month.

Last year Filip's firm found numerous shortcomings in PG&E's tree-management practices, including the discovery that its contractors had failed to chop down hundreds of trees growing perilously close to power lines. In this year's update, he said it wasn't clear what's caused the apparent backsliding. He acknowledged that he's using a smaller sample size than he did last year, and is focusing on areas more thickly forested than before.

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