A federal judge in California blasted utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric Co. on Wednesday, accusing the beleaguered company of putting profits before customer safety and not doing enough to keep trees away from its power lines, thus increasing the risk of wildfires.
"Safety is not your number one thing," said U.S. District Judge William Alsup said in a probation hearing in San Francisco. The hearing came one day after the utility had filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of billions of dollars in potential liabilities stemming from two seasons of devastating wildfires.
Alsup is scrutinizing the utility company's criminal convictions for violating pipeline safety laws after the massive 2010 gas explosion that killed eight people and incinerated a neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., just south of San Francisco.
An investigation is underway to determine what role PG&E's power lines may have played in igniting last year's deadly Camp Fire that killed at least 86 people and destroyed much of the Northern California town of Paradise.
"To my mind, there's a very clear-cut pattern here: that PG&E is starting these fires," Alsup said. "What do we do? Does the judge just turn a blind eye and say, 'PG&E continue your business as usual. Kill more people by starting more fires.' "
The judge was not done. He said he is concerned about the possibility of more wildfires in 2019.
"Will we be seeing headlines: 'PG&E has done it again?'" asked Alsup. "Started another fire and some other town burned down because you didn't turn the power off or you didn't cut the trees?"
However, the judge did not order the company to comply immediately with a series of proposals he made requiring it to inspect its entire power grid and "remove or trim all tress that could fall onto its power lines." Alsup also suggested that PG&E temporarily shut off power in some circumstances to avoid igniting fires. The company responded saying the judge's safety plan was not feasible and could cost as much as $150 billion.
The judge said he wants to see a wildfire mitigation plan the company is expected to send to state regulators next month.
In Wednesday's hearing, PG&E attorney Kevin Orsini said the company is taking steps to reduce the wildfire danger, but that it would not be able to find enough qualified tree trimmers to do all the work the judge has proposed.
"The people don't exist," said Orsini.
In a statement issued after the hearing, the company said it "shares the court's commitment to safety and agrees with the urgency that we all have to work together to reduce the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California."
"We look forward to working with the court and probation on how we might enhance our communication efforts," it added.