U.S. judge assesses whether PG&E violated probation with 2019 fire

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – A federal judge is assessing whether Pacific Gas & Electric violated his criminal probation by starting a wildfire north of San Francisco that destroyed more than 100 homes and injured six firefighters in October 2019.

PG&E prosecutors and attorneys appeared Tuesday in a hearing before U.S. District Judge William Alsup, a month after the Sonoma County District Attorney charged the company with five felonies and 28 counts of arson which destroyed 374 buildings and initiated the county’s largest evacuation. history, with nearly 100,000 people forced to flee.

PG&E accepted investigators’ findings that its transmission line ignited the fire that burned over 311 square kilometers, but denied committing any crimes. He is trying to get two-thirds of the charges dismissed on the grounds that his alleged violations of state air pollution laws do not constitute a crime.

Federal probation officer Jennifer Hutchings alleged that the 2019 Kincade fire violated company probation after its natural gas line exploded in 2010 that blew up a neighborhood in San Bruno, a suburb of south of San Francisco, which led to the appointment of Alsup to oversee utility operations.

One of the conditions of probation was that the public service, which serves approximately 16 million people, did not commit another federal, state or local crime.


Alsup said he would consider imposing additional probation conditions because of the fire, adding that “losing 100 homes is truly catastrophic. There is no other way to describe it.

The judge repeatedly found that the company had violated other probation conditions and each time imposed more conditions on the company.

Last year, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter that started the 2018 campfire in Butte County that largely destroyed the town of Paradise in the wildest wildfire. murderous and most destructive in recorded California history.

Taxpayer attorney and former City of San Diego lawyer Michael Aguirre argued on Tuesday that PG&E intended to run out of time without making fundamental changes to improve safety before Alsup’s oversight ended. in January.

“This is a convicted felon on probation who has just been convicted of additional security breaches that resulted in the destruction of 100 homes,” Aguirre said.

Company attorney Reid Schar replied that public service executives take their responsibility very seriously.

Alsup said he was very unlikely to accept a proposal from Aguirre asking him to appoint a trustee or receiver to oversee the public service, in part because PG&E’s federal probation period expired in January. Alsup said he did not have the power to extend it, so any supervisor would lose power in January as well.

Holding hearings to determine whether to appoint a director would also distract staff from their primary duty of preventing company equipment from starting more wildfires as California enters what officials fear. to be a particularly dangerous forest fire season due to drought.

“The fire season is very near and I don’t mind distracting the lawyers, but I do mind distracting the people who have to lead the fire prevention activities at PG&E,” the judge said.

Separately, Alsup considered an ordinance that could force the utility to deliberately cut off the power more frequently to reduce the risk of wildfires. The California Public Utilities Commission has objected that the plan could double the number of power outages in some rural northern California counties over the next decade.

Last month, the state commission also stepped up its oversight of the utility after determining it was neglecting maintenance of its power grid, sparking a series of deadly wildfires and forcing precautionary power outages. affecting millions of people in northern California.

Problems cited by both Alsup and state regulators include poor maintenance of dilapidated equipment and preventing trees from falling on power lines.

Alsup also noted that in another year the utility will “get rid of me,” but added, “I have eight or nine months to go, and I plan to use it as fairly as possible.”

He has set another hearing for June 2.

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Associated Press writer Michael Liedtke contributed to this story.

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