A federal judge is blaming giant utility Pacific Gas and Electric as a major culprit in massive wildfires that ripped through California in 2017 and 2018.
An order issued Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, who is hearing a case related to the Northern California utility’s response to a 2010 pipeline blast, laid responsibility for the fires at PG&E’s door, according to NBC.
“The Court tentatively finds that the single most recurring cause of the large 2017 and 2018 wildfires attributable to PG&E’s equipment has been the susceptibility of PG&E’s distribution lines to trees or limbs falling onto them during high-wind events,” his order in the case reads.
“The power conductors are almost always uninsulated,” the judge wrote. “When the conductors are pushed together by falling trees or limbs, electrical sparks drop into the vegetation below. During the wildfire season when the vegetation is dry, these electrical sparks pose an extreme danger of igniting a wildfire.”
The utility offered a statement in response.
“PG&E’s most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and the communities we serve,” the utility said. “We are aware of Judge Alsup’s latest order and are currently reviewing. We are committed to complying with all rules and regulations that apply to our work, while working together with our state and community partners and across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions for the future.”
Scott McLean, deputy chief of communication for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that PG&E bears responsibility for 12 of 17 fires in 2017.
No assessment was available for 2018.
Alsup has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 30. He is seeking to force the utility to upgrade its fire safety program.
Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), California’s biggest utility, is accused of sparking at least 1,500 fires, faces billions in liabilities and collapsepic.twitter.com/lBnUHse8nN
— Alfons López Tena #FBPE (@alfonslopeztena) January 15, 2019
One legislator hailed the judge’s action, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
State Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes areas impacted by the fires, said he is encouraged that Alsup is delving into PG&E’s safety policies and procedures.
“A federal judge is actually saying things and hopefully will do something about the lack of maintenance at PG&E,” Hill said. “No one else has required that.”
PG&E has said that liabilities from the fires have forced it into bankruptcy, with a Chapter 11 filing planned for the end of the month, the Sacramento Bee reported.
“The people affected by the devastating Northern California wildfires are our customers, our neighbors and our friends, and we understand the profound impact the fires have had on our communities and the need for PG&E to continue enhancing our wildfire mitigation efforts,” said interim CEO John Simon in a statement, according to CNN.
“We remain committed to helping them through the recovery and rebuilding process. We believe a court-supervised (bankruptcy) process … will best enable PG&E to resolve its potential liabilities in an orderly, fair and expeditious fashion,” he said.
Alsup has made his dissatisfaction clear with PG&E.
Earlier this month, he said he was considering an order against the utility that would require a full inspection of its power grid.
Alsup said he was considering forcing PG&E to shut down sections of the grid during windy weather unless an inspection has shown its equipment is safe, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
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