Business & Real Estate

California orders safety upgrades at PG&E amid Camp Fire scrutiny

PG&E Corp., under intense scrutiny over its possible role in starting the Camp Fire, was ordered by California regulators Thursday to overhaul its corporate culture to improve public safety.

The Public Utilities Commission, at a tumultuous meeting in San Francisco interrupted by protesters, voted to adopt 60 recommendations made last year by an independent consultant that audited the beleaguered utility.

The audit was prompted by the 2010 pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno. Now it will be broadened to cover Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s possible involvement in the Camp Fire and a rash of fires that killed 44 people in Northern California’s wine country last year.

PUC President Michael Picker said the new phase of the audit will look at the overall structure of PG&E and whether there is a different model to ensure that we have safe and reliable ... service.”

He initially called for a broad, top-to-bottom look at PG&E a few days after the Camp Fire roared through Paradise, and suggested in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the company might have to be broken up to ensure customer safety.

At the same time, Picker said Thursday he’s leery of doing anything that would disrupt PG&E’s day-to-day operations. “We can’t just crash the plane just to make it safer; we have to keep it flying at the same time,” he said.

Search and rescue team search for victims of the Camp Fire at the Skyway Villa Mobile Home Park in Paradise. Damage claims have left state officials declaring a Merced County insurance company insolvent. Hector Amezcua

The Camp Fire has become the deadliest in California history, killing 88 people. PG&E has disclosed that a transmission line located near the origin of the fire, in a remote part of Butte County called Pulga, experienced a problem a few minutes before the fire began Nov. 8.

Cal Fire is still investigating the cause. It already has cited PG&E equipment problems in 16 of the fires that burned through the wine country last year.

The PUC’s decision comes as other legal problems are piling up for the utility. More lawsuits were filed Thursday. Earlier this week the federal judge overseeing the company’s criminal probation from the San Bruno disaster ordered PG&E to explain whether “reckless operation or maintenance of PG&E power lines” started the Camp Fire or any other wildfire — and whether the utility’s actions represent a violation of the terms of probation. It isn’t clear what consequences PG&E would face if it’s found to have violated probation.

The PUC’s outside consultant, NorthStar Consulting Group, released 60 different organizational recommendations, such as accelerating safety training for crew foremen and requiring that outside members of the corporate board of directors have safety credentials. Outside directors are people who don’t work for the company.

The consultant’s report said PG&E “has made progress in improving its safety culture” but still has “blind spots.” For instance, while employees are encouraged to speak up on safety matters, “this belief is not yet firmly entrenched within the organization.”

Although PG&E already has said it agreed with the reforms, a PUC administrative law judge, in reviewing the consultant’s report in October, questioned PG&E’s commitment to safety.

“We continue to have concerns about whether PG&E truly is changing its culture, or is just trying to ‘check the boxes,’” Judge Peter Allen wrote in a formal recommendation to the utilities commission.

In a statement released shortly after the PUC’s vote the utility said: “We value and agree with all of NorthStar’s recommendations. We have implemented the majority of their recommendations already, and are on track to implement many more within the next year, along with our ongoing activities to improve public, employee and contractor safety. We believe we have made significant progress, but recognize there is always more work to do to achieve our mission to provide safe, reliable, affordable, and clean energy.”

The PUC’s decision was applauded by Up from the Ashes, a coalition of survivors of the wine country fires. “Safety has not been the top priority of PG&E,” the group said. “Rapid action is needed.”

The PUC meeting was interrupted by protesters shouting, “Clean power to the people,” “PG&E is deadly” and other slogans. At one point, protesters started chanting, “This meeting cannot continue until PG&E admits its crimes,” prompting Picker to call a five-minute recess.

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