PG&E plans to cut thousands of trees to prevent fires. Here’s why hundreds didn’t get chopped

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 this 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 Chicago-based 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.

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