PG&E is hit with ad­di­tional lit­i­ga­tion amid in­ferno probes

Mul­ti­ple vic­tims have filed suits ques­tion­ing util­ity’s safety prac­tices

The Mercury News - - Business + Technology - By Ge­orge Ava­los gava­los@ba­yare­anews­group.com

PG&E was jolted Tues­day by a fresh round of law­suits from for­mer San Fran­cisco mayor Frank Jor­dan and other vic­tims of the lethal North Bay infernos, al­leg­ing the util­ity had put prof­its be­fore pub­lic safety.

The Oc­to­ber wild­fires in the Wine Coun­try and nearby ar­eas killed 43 peo­ple and torched at least 245,000 acres in six coun­ties.

Jor­dan, along with his wife and guests, fled their Santa Rosa home, manag­ing to grab only a hand­ful of com­mem­o­ra­tive pho­to­graphs be­fore es­cap­ing the flames. The blaze de­stroyed their house, guest­house and per­sonal be­long­ings.

PG&E has said it is co­op­er­at­ing with in­ves­ti­ga­tors from Cal Fire and the state Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion. The in­ves­ti­ga­tors have not yet de­ter­mined what caused the fires.

The law­suits al­lege, how­ever, that PG&E dis­re­garded manda­tory safety prac­tices and fore­see­able haz­ardous risks as­so­ci­ated with the util­ity’s in­fra­struc­ture by fail­ing to iden­tify, in­spect, man­age and con­trol veg­e­ta­tion growth near its power lines and other elec­tri­cal equip­ment.

“This calamity was pre­ventable,” Frank Pitre, an at­tor­ney for the plain­tiffs in the new lit­i­ga­tion, said Tues­day while an­nounc­ing the law­suits.

The at­tor­neys said they and their clients don’t want to wait for the out­come of probes by the PUC, CalFire and PG&E to de­ter­mine what caused the fires.

“We are tired of the cloud of se­crecy that cov­ers ev­ery­thing PG&E does,” Pitre said. “The only way we can get be­hind the cloud, the cur­tain, the veil of

se­crecy is to file these law­suits. We want to draw our own con­clu­sions to get to the truth.”

The util­ity ac­knowl­edged the new lit­i­ga­tion Tues­day.

“We are aware that law­suits have been filed,” PG&E spokesman Don­ald Cut­ler said. “There has been no de­ter­mi­na­tion on the causes of the fires.”

The law­suits ad­dress the al­leged use of re­closers — equip­ment that can au­to­mat­i­cally restart power in lines af­ter a ser­vice in­ter­rup­tion. If elec­tric­ity pulses are sent through lines that are in con­tact with trees or other veg­e­ta­tion, that can set off a fire. PG&E is al­leged to have been op­er­at­ing nu­mer­ous re­closers dur­ing the time of the North Bay fires, al­though the pre­cise lo­ca­tions of this equip­ment weren’t im­me­di­ately clear. Some of PG&E’s de­vices were pro­grammed to try up to three times to re­store power by spark­ing elec­tric­ity, the lit­i­ga­tion claims.

“PG&E knew that its re­closers

posed a great risk of wild­fire,” one of the law­suits al­leges. “At a con­gres­sional hear­ing in 2015, PG&E’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of elec­tri­cal op­er­a­tions, Pa­trick Ho­gan, stated that PG&E had the abil­ity to re­pro­gram its re­closers dur­ing fire sea­son to not restart power. Ho­gan claimed that shut­ting down power means ‘you take the re­li­a­bil­ity hit, but you gain the wild­fire ben­e­fit.’ De­spite this knowl­edge and abil­ity, PG&E never re­pro­grammed all of its re­closers to pre­vent wild­fires,” the com­plaint al­leged.

Gre­gory Wil­son, a Santa Rosa res­i­dent and one of the plain­tiffs in the new lit­i­ga­tion, re­called how he and his wife plunged into their back­yard swim­ming pool to es­cape the heat, flames and drift­ing em­bers. They re­mained in the wa­ter for hours while the flames con­sumed their home.

“We jumped in the pool to sur­vive,” Wil­son, whose throat was dam­aged by ex­ten­sive smoke in­hala­tion, whis­pered Tues­day dur­ing the live-streamed press con­fer­ence to an­nounce the law­suits. “For the next three hours, we watched ev­ery­thing burn around

us. It’s a night­mare that you can’t even imag­ine.”

Two other plain­tiffs, Wil­lard and Lyn Anne Hay of Sonoma, said they es­caped with their dog, but now must pon­der the loss of their dream home, which once sat on 21 acres be­fore their res­i­dence, a guest house and other struc­tures were con­sumed by the con­fla­gra­tion.

The at­tor­neys and plain­tiffs also claim that PG&E knew that some of the com­po­nents of its elec­tri­cal sys­tem were ag­ing and less re­li­able at the time of the fire.

“De­spite this knowl­edge, PG&E did not main­tain, re­pair or re­place its equip­ment,” the lit­i­ga­tion al­leges.

PG&E has $800 mil­lion in in­sur­ance to cover any li­a­bil­i­ties for the Wine Coun­try fires. The util­ity stated on a re­cent con­fer­ence call with an­a­lysts that it would ask the state PUC to au­tho­rize it to boost cus­tomers’ monthly elec­tric­ity bills if ac­tual North Bay fire ex­penses ex­ceed that cov­er­age.

San Fran­cisco-based PG&E has been in hot wa­ter in re­cent years af­ter the Septem­ber 2010 ex­plo­sion of a gas pipe­line that killed

eight peo­ple and de­stroyed a San Bruno neigh­bor­hood.

In the largest fi­nan­cial pun­ish­ment ever im­posed on a U.S. util­ity, the PUC levied a $1.6 bil­lion penalty on PG&E for caus­ing the San Bruno blast. In Au­gust 2016, a fed­eral grand jury found PG&E guilty for crimes it com­mit­ted be­fore and af­ter the ex­plo­sion, in­clud­ing the util­ity’s ob­struc­tion of a Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board probe into the blast. PG&E’s flawed record-keep­ing and shoddy main­te­nance of its gas sys­tem caused the San Bruno ex­plo­sion, the NTSB de­ter­mined.

In Jan­uary, PG&E be­came a con­victed felon when a fed­eral judge sen­tenced the util­ity on six crim­i­nal con­vic­tions.

“No amount of ad­ver­tis­ing, no num­ber of crim­i­nal con­vic­tions, in­clud­ing mis­lead­ing the NTSB, seems to change a cul­ture at PG&E that puts prof­its ahead of safety,” Pitre said Tues­day.

Dur­ing the 12 months that ended in Septem­ber, PG&E earned $2.06 bil­lion in prof­its on rev­enue of $18.04 bil­lion.

KARL MONDON — STAFF

For­mer San Fran­cisco Mayor Frank Jor­dan is among those su­ing PG&E for fail­ing to pre­vent wild­fires that de­stroyed homes and be­long­ings.

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