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Federal judge torches PG&E fire record

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“What do we do? Does the judge just turn a blind eye and say, ‘PG&E continue your business as usual. Kill more people’”

Power lines against a blue sky. Photo by Wallenrock/Shutterstock

A federal judge who wants to impose sweeping new fire safety regulations on Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) poured derision onto the San Francisco-based utility’s safety record and claims of financial hardship Wednesday.

Despite this, the Associated Press reports that at the Wednesday’s hearing U.S. District Judge William Alsup said he would wait to consider PG&E’s new anti-wildfire plan—which the company will present to the California Public Utilities Commission in February—before deciding whether to push more stringent safety measures on the company.

According to those present at the hearing, Alsup expressed scorn for the utility’s safety record and for its objections to his past orders, alleging a “clear-cut pattern” of PG&E starting fatal fires.

“What do we do? Does the judge just turn a blind eye and say, ‘PG&E continue your business as usual. Kill more people?’” said Alsup. “Will we see headlines PG&E has done it again?” Another town is burned down because you didn’t turn the power off or cut down the trees?”

The judge derided PG&E’s frequent public statements about prioritizing safety, retorting that “it’s not true.”

Alsup belittled the company’s claims that his proposed safety measures are too expensive and impractical, pointing out that the company can afford to pay billions to shareholders. He also told company lawyers, “You spend so much on lobbying.”

The judge went on to say that PG&E could get laws passed helping expedite the ordered work.

Alsup also ruled that PG&E violated the terms of its probation by not reporting a potential district attorney’s investigation into one of the 2017 Northern California fires, ignited by company equipment, in a timely manner.

Photo by RebeccaJaneCall

Wednesday’s hearing was to determine whether Alsup would impose new terms for PG&E’s probation stemming from the company’s conviction on charges relating to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline disaster.

The judge wants the company to overhaul its electrical infrastructure, requiring PG&E to assess power lines and poles throughout the state and clear away nearby trees and vegetation that might pose a fire hazard.

In response, PG&E’s lawyers claimed last week that the judge’s plan is impossible to execute—specifically, it would cost the utility company between $75 billion and $150 billion, require more tree trimmers than readily available in California, and lead to quintupling customer rates.

The hearing comes one day after PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.