Judge in San Bruno criminal case demands answers from PG&E on cause of Camp Fire

A federal judge overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation from the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion is demanding answers from the utility about its potential role in the Camp Fire or other major wildfires.

In a written order, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco told PG&E to explain whether “reckless operation or maintenance of PG&E power lines” started a wildfire — and whether that might constitute a violation of the terms of the utility’s probation.

PG&E was found guilty in federal court of obstruction of justice and other charges in connection with the 2010 San Bruno disaster, which killed eight people and injured 58 others. At sentencing in January 2017, the utility was placed on five years’ probation, fined $3 million and ordered to perform thousands of hours of community service.

The probation sentence included a prohibition against committing further crimes.

Aside from the criminal case, the San Bruno catastrophe was a major crisis for PG&E. The utility was fined $1.6 billion by regulators and paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in civil settlements.

Alsup told the utility to provide “an accurate and complete statement of the role, if any, of PG&E in causing and reporting the recent Camp Fire in Butte County and all other wildfires in California” since PG&E was placed on probation in January 2017.

PG&E has disclosed to regulators that a transmission line, located near the spot where the Camp Fire ignited, experienced a problem a few minutes before the fire was reported early Nov. 8. Cal Fire continues to investigate the cause of the blaze, which has killed at least 88 people and has become the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.

The utility’s disclosure about the power line, along with a statement to investors that damage claims might overwhelm PG&E’s liability insurance coverage, has sent the company’s stock price tumbling by almost half. It did gain $1.85 a share Tuesday to close at $26.97 on the New York Stock Exchange, but lost 2 cents in after-hours trading as news of the judge’s order began to circulate.

Cal Fire cited PG&E power lines and other equipment for causing at least 16 of the October 2017 wine country fires, which killed 44 people. Cal Fire still hasn’t determined the cause for the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, which killed 24 of the 44 victims.

In response to the judge’s order, the utility said, “Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers, employees, contractors and the communities we serve. We are aware of the court’s notice and are currently reviewing. We continue to focus on assessing infrastructure, safely restoring power where possible, and helping our customers recover and rebuild.”

PG&E has until Dec. 31 to submit written answers to the judge and federal probation officials.

An insurance consultant has estimated that financial damages from the Camp Fire could exceed $7.5 billion. A Democratic assemblyman plans to introduce legislation providing more protection from wildfire losses to PG&E and other utilities — protection that would go beyond the benefits provided by a bill signed into law in September by Gov. Jerry Brown.

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