PG & E probe launched after rau­cous PUC meet­ing.

Vol­leys of crit­i­cism un­leashed over util­ity’s role in lethal wild­fires

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Ge­orgeA­va­los gava­[email protected] ba­yare­anews­

State reg­u­la­tors on Thurs­day launched a probe into PG&E’s cor­po­rate struc­ture and com­mit­ment to safety dur­ing a meet­ing dis­rupted by protests over the util­ity’s op­er­a­tions in the wake of deadly wild­fires in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and a fa­tal ex­plo­sion in San Bruno.

Even though the state Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion on Thurs­day or­dered PG&E to adopt 60 rec­om­men­da­tions from an in­de­pen­dent con­sul­tant to im­prove its safety cul­ture, speak­ers dur­ing the meet­ing sug­gested that the com­mis­sion has cod­dled PG& E rather than reg­u­late the em­bat­tled util­ity.

But PG& E said it al­ready had en­acted many of the changes.

“We’ve im­ple­mented the ma­jor­ity of their rec­om­men­da­tions al­ready, and are on track to im­ple­ment many more­within the next year,” PG&E said in a pre­pared re­lease.

Bay Area res­i­dents spoke for well over one hour to the five com­mis­sion­ers, with re­peated de­mands that PG&E should not be bailed out. The speak­ers urged the com­mis­sion and state politi­cians to al­low PG& E to tum­ble into bank­ruptcy if the com­pany can’t cope with its fi­nan­cial ex­po­sure from wild­fires in 2017 and 2018.

“The peo­ple of Cal­i­for­nia are fed up with the

con­tin­u­ing death and de­struc­tion caused by PG&E and the other util­i­ties,” said Steve Zeltzer, an of­fi­cial with United Pub­lic Work­ers for Ac­tion. “The PUC is a pawn of the util­i­ties. Util­ity ex­ec­u­tives should be in jail for what they have done. They con­tinue to kill peo­ple. Let’s take the profit out of util­i­ties. These prof­i­teers don’t give a damn about the peo­ple they are killing.”

Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent Michael Picker vowed to open a fresh in­ves­ti­ga­tion into PG& E with an eye to a pos­si­ble re­struc­tur­ing of the com­pany or re­plac­ing some mem­bers of the board of di­rec­tors.

“PG& E ap­pears to not have a clear vi­sion for its safety pro­grams,” Picker said in sum­ma­riz­ing part of the PG& E safety cul­ture re­port. “PG& E pur­sues many pro­grams with­out hav­ing an idea of how they fit to­gether. This is deeply trou­bling. It keeps me awake at night.”

Dur­ing a fed­eral trial after the 2010 San Bruno gas pipe­line ex­plo­sion, pros­e­cu­tors ar­gued that the util­ity put prof­its ahead of safety, a cor­po­rate phi­los­o­phy that even­tu­ally led to the blast that killed eight and de­stroyed a neigh­bor­hood. PG& E is now a con­victed felon due to crimes it com­mit­ted be­fore and after the San Bruno ex­plo­sion in 2010.

Ques­tions about PG&E’s com­mit­ment to safety have erupted again fol­low­ing a se­ries of fa­tal in­fer­nos that scorched the North Bay Wine Coun­try and nearby re­gions in Oc­to­ber 2017 and this year’s lethal blazes in Butte County that de­stroyed the town of Par­adise.

Sev­eral speak­ers were crit­i­cal of the com­pen­sa­tion pack­age for PG& E chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Geisha Wil­liams, who re­ceived $8.6 mil­lion in to­tal di­rect pay, in­clud­ing $6.5 mil­lion in stock awards, dur­ing the time the com­pany was sen­tenced for six felonies linked to the San Bruno blast and its equip­ment was in­volved in mul­ti­ple Wine Coun­try in­fer­nos.

San Fran­cisco- based PG&E has raised the specter of bank­ruptcy if state of­fi­cials fail to help the com­pany ward off its fi­nan­cial ex­po­sure from the wild­fires.

“We do not want to bail out PG& E. We don’t want to take the fall for PG& E. It’s their fault,” said Mar­garet Lewis, a mem­ber of Com­mu­ni­ties for a Bet­ter En­vi­ron­ment in Oak­land. “They have made ir­re­spon­si­ble cor­po­rate de­ci­sions by putting prof­its over peo­ple. Let them go bank­rupt.”

The PUC also came un­der harsh crit­i­cism from sev­eral speak­ers.

“We need to stop pro­tect­ing PG&E, we need to stop pro­tect­ing the PUC,” said Jes­sica To­var of East Bay Clean Power Al­liance. “The P in PUC stands for prof­its, or maybe the P stands for PG& E. No PG& E bailout. We will not take this … any longer.”

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