SAN FRANCISCO — A day after PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection from what could be multi-billion dollar wildfire liability costs, a federal judge Wednesday declared the beleaguered utility in violation of its probation for the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion and spent three hours excoriating the company for its role in the blazes that have ravaged Northern California over the past two years.
“Does a judge turn a blind eye and let PG&E continue what you’re doing, let you keep killing people?” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said inside the San Francisco courtroom. “Can’t we have electricity that is delivered safely in this state?”
The finding sets the stage for the judge to add additional and costly terms to Pacific Gas & Electric’s criminal probation for the deadly pipeline blast — requirements such as inspections and tree trimming the utility says could cost billions of dollars and lead to customer rates rising five-fold. Alsup, who is monitoring the utility’s federal probation, did not make that decision at Wednesday’s hearing but said he would soon, as fire season begins in June. He said he would pay close attention to what PG&E submits as its newly required wildfire mitigation plan. That plan is due next week as part of a new state law.
Alsup opened the hearing before a packed courtroom by comparing PG&E to a drug dealer who violates probation by committing a different crime. He noted that PG&E equipment was involved in starting 17 recent wildfires and dismissed the company’s claims that it warned its probation monitor that the Butte County District Attorney’s office was investigating criminal actions by the utility involving fires during 2017. That inadequate notification, Alsup ordered, was a probation violation.
“Those fires killed 22 people, burned alive in their cars and homes,” Alsup said. “There is one clear pattern here: PG&E is starting these fires. Global warming is not starting these fires.
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