Climate

Judge blasts PG&E as 'continuing menace' over wildfires as utility's probation ends

Key Points
  • A federal judge on Wednesday declared Pacific Gas & Electric a "continuing menace" to California over its role in igniting wildfires, as the utility is set to end a five year felony probation.
  • During its probation, PG&E ignited at least 31 wildfires that burned nearly 1.5 million acres and killed 113 people, U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote in a report.
  • Alsup has overseen PG&E's probation since its conviction of crimes connected to a 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in California. The utility's probation is set to end on Jan. 25.

In this article

People take part in an event to hand-deliver 100,000 public comments from Californians throughout the state calling on Governor Newsom to reject proposals that penalize consumers for putting solar panels on their rooftops outside the California State Capitol Museum in Sacramento, California, on December 08, 2021.
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A federal judge on Wednesday declared Pacific Gas & Electric a "continuing menace" to California over its role in igniting deadly wildfires, as the utility is set to end a five-year felony probation. 

During its probation, PG&E-owned equipment ignited at least 31 wildfires that burned nearly 1.5 million acres and killed 113 people, U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote in a report.

During PG&E's probation, all of the fires ignited by its distribution lines involved hazard trees. Alsup called the company's backlog of unattended trees and vegetation at the outset of its probation "staggering," and called on the company to stop outsourcing to independent contractors, who he said have performed "sloppy inspection and clearance work."

Alsup has overseen the company's probation since its conviction of crimes connected to a 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in California. PG&E's probation is set to end on Jan. 25.

"PG&E has gone on a crime spree and will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California," Alsup wrote.

"In probation, with a goal of rehabilitation in mind, we always prefer that criminal offenders learn to accept responsibility for their actions," Alsup wrote. "Sadly, during all five years of probation, PG&E has refused to accept responsibility for its actions until convenient to its cause or until it is forced to do so."

The company's equipment has been blamed for many of the state's wildfires in recent years. A recent state investigation found that PG&E transmission lines ignited the Dixie Fire in Northern California, which burned nearly 1 million acres and destroyed more than 1,300 homes last summer. It was the second-largest fire in California's history.

PG&E pleaded guilty in 2019 to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California's history. It faces five felony and 28 misdemeanor counts in the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County. It also faces a slew of other civil and criminal actions for its alleged responsibility in causing wildfires.

The judge wrote that California will "remain trapped in a tragic era of PG&E wildfires" as the company has neglected to conduct proper hazard-tree removal and vegetation clearance, which are required by California's Public Resource Code.

"PG&E has blamed global warming, drought, and bark beetles. It's true that those things made the wildfires worse," Alsup said. "But they were reasons to step up compliance rather than slack off. And, those things didn't start those fires. PG&E did that."

PG&E spokesperson James Noonan said in a statement that the company has welcomed feedback from the court, the federal monitor and other stakeholders and recognizes the shared to goal to keep its coworkers and customers safe.

"PG&E has become a fundamentally safer company over the course of our probation," Noonan said. "We are focused every day on making our system safer and pursuing our stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop. We are committed to doing that work, now and in the years ahead."

Earlier this year, the company announced plans to bury 10,000 miles of power lines starting in the highest fire threat districts in an effort to minimize the role of its equipment in starting fires.

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