Er­rors found in PG&E’s tree-cut­ting pro­gram

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY RYAN SABALOW rsa­[email protected]

Un­der in­tense pres­sure to re­duce wild­fire risk this sum­mer, PG&E Corp. failed to no­tice that its tree-trim­ming con­trac­tors ne­glected to chop down hun­dreds of trees grow­ing dan­ger­ously close to power lines, a court-ap­pointed mon­i­tor told the fed­eral judge over­see­ing PG&E’s crim­i­nal pro­ba­tion last week.

In one case, a tree trim­ming con­trac­tor fal­si­fied records and the util­ity never no­ticed, ac­cord­ing to a re­port filed in U.S. Dis­trict Court in San Fran­cisco.

The find­ings could spell yet more trou­ble for Cal­i­for­nia’s largest elec­tric util­ity, which filed for bankruptcy in Jan­uary after its power lines were blamed for spark­ing wild­fires that killed dozens of peo­ple since 2017. PG&E has em­barked on a mas­sive tree trim­ming ef­fort across its vast ser­vice area in re­sponse, spend­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars.

But U.S. Dis­trict Judge Wil­liam Al­sup, who is over­see­ing PG&E’s crim­i­nal pro­ba­tion fol­low­ing the 2010 San Bruno pipe­line ex­plo­sion that killed eight peo­ple, has re­peat­edly slammed the util­ity for lax over­sight and fail­ing to pre­vent wild­fires. In April, Al­sup or­dered the mon­i­tor over­see­ing PG&E from its con­vic­tion in the San Bruno case to take a closer look at the tree-trim­ming pro­gram.

The mon­i­tor, the Chicagob­ased law firm Kirkland & El­lis, found hun­dreds of trees still stand­ing dan­ger­ously close to lines, de­spite the util­ity re­port­ing the work had been done.

The re­port says nearly half of the 1,223 line-clear­ing projects the mon­i­tor checked along 53 miles of lines con­tained at least one “du­bi­ous” tree that never got cut. Sev­eral had many more trees still stand­ing.

“The in­spec­tions have also re­vealed broader pro­gram­matic is­sues ... in­clud­ing sys­tem­atic record keep­ing, work al­lo­ca­tion, train­ing and post-work ver­i­fi­ca­tion is­sues,” the 33-page re­port says.

The most egre­gious ex­am­ple Kirkland & El­lis found was of a tree trim­mer fal­si­fy­ing a re­port. In Novem­ber 2018, PG&E flagged a tree near a pri­mary con­duc­tor as need­ing to get cut down. The re­port doesn’t say where.

A tree work com­pany, who wasn’t named in the re­port, told PG&E it had cut the tree down in Fe­bru­ary 2019.

PG&E in­spec­tors again flagged the tree for re­moval a cou­ple of months later, but the util­ity’s in­spec­tor didn’t no­tice that the tree should have al­ready been cut down, the re­port says.

The in­di­vid­ual trim­mer who fal­si­fied the re­port has since been banned from work­ing on PG&E lines, and the com­pany said it would au­dit where the worker cut trees to see if he or she ac­tu­ally per­formed the job. PG&E also is­sued a “stand down” with the worker’s com­pany to dis­cuss how to avoid fu­ture prob­lems, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

In an­other ex­am­ple out­lined in the re­port, PG&E never trimmed dozens of dan­ger­ous trees, be­cause its records said a prop­erty owner re­fused to al­low the con­trac­tors ac­cess to their land. How­ever, when Kirkland & El­lis went to check, the cus­tomer said he or she wanted the job done, and PG&E’s own notes showed the landowner had signed off.

“Record keep­ing de­fects have been a re­cur­rent prob­lem for PG&E — both be­fore and after the San Bruno ex­plo­sion and be­fore and after the more re­cent 2017 and 2018 wild­fires,” the re­port says. “Record-keep­ing de­fects per­sist.”

The re­port said PG&E ac­knowl­edged the prob­lems and is tak­ing steps to ad­dress them.

“We un­der­stand and rec­og­nize the se­ri­ous con­cerns raised by the mon­i­tor and we are tak­ing im­me­di­ate ac­tion to ad­dress these is­sues, which are con­sis­tent with our own in­ter­nal re­views,” PG&E spokes­woman Lynsey Paulo told The Sacra­mento Bee Fri­day in an email. “The work we are do­ing (to trim trees) hasn’t been at­tempted be­fore at this scope, scale and pace. We are creating a new path for­ward to meet this cru­cial chal­lenge.”

Paulo said PG&E has in re­cent months trimmed trees along more than 500 miles of lines, and has nearly 4,000 em­ploy­ees and con­trac­tors as­signed to the task.

Judge Al­sup scheduled a Sept. 17 hear­ing to dis­cuss the re­port. He also set a Sept. 3 dead­line for PG&E to re­spond in writ­ing to the mon­i­tor’s find­ings.

ELIAS FUNEZ The (Ne­vada City) Union file

Moun­tain F En­ter­prises work­ers cleared veg­e­ta­tion from a swath of land sur­round­ing PG&E’s power lines near White Cloud Camp­ground. Trees felled in the area were be­ing sold to log­ging com­pa­nies.

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