PG&E monitor suggests tree trimming program emphasized numbers over safety
The Federal Monitor, which oversees Pacific Gas and Electric Co., has questioned whether the company’s performance of the court-supervised pruning was geared more toward achieving numerical goals than toward maximizing safety.
When PG&E felled trees around power lines last year, it often did not focus on the equipment most likely to start forest fires. This emerges from a new letter that the Monitor presented to a federal judge. The utility conducted most of its 2019 improved vegetation management program in “relatively low-risk parts” of high fire risk areas, the monitor wrote.
The PG&E program should be an expanded effort to remove trees and branches that could collide with power lines and cause catastrophic forest fires – a scenario that has occurred repeatedly since 2015 and in some cases is fatal. This risk has also led PG&E to shut down some power lines as a preventive measure in the event of storms. This is a move the company will repeat in parts of the Bay Area this week.
The monitor’s letter went on to say that as of Aug. 31, PG&E hadn’t climbed nearly 1,000 high-voltage electrical storms to look for devices that could break and start large fires – a different way the company had previously been for Fires was responsible.
Monitor Mark Filip sent his letter to U.S. District Judge William Alsup ordering PG&E Tuesday to respond by 12 noon on November 3. Filip was hired to oversee the company in 2017, which was suspended following his conviction for the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.
PG&E is also being investigated for potentially causing the deadly Zogg Fire in Shasta County earlier this year. The bankruptcy case sparked by responsibility for many other fires was resolved a few months ago.
The company’s vegetation program should highlight the power lines most likely to cause devastating fires, so the company would get the greatest risk reduction sooner rather than later, the letter from Filip said.
However, Filip found that about 59% of PG&E improved vegetation work last year took place outside of the top 100 circuits, with the results of the company’s own risk model being most important.
“Of course, operational considerations can force some deviations from a risk model or related plan that is informed by that model. In this case, however, the severity of the discrepancies strongly suggests that the company prioritizes achievement of mileage targets (improved vegetation management) over the most sensible reduction in forest fire risk, ”Filip wrote.
As PG&E raced to meet its year-end vegetation management goals late last year, the Filip team found “fewer and fewer trees – and sometimes no trees at all” along miles of power lines the company had counted for its purposes, the metrics said Letter. The implication is that PG&E counted sections of the power line with few or no trees in order to achieve its pruning goals.
As of November 2019, 92% of the powerline miles that counted towards the company’s improved vegetation management metrics did not require pruning, the letter said. The number improved to 77% by the end of the year, and preliminary data through September shows that only 57% of the miles that year did not require pruning, Filip said in the letter.
In addition, PG&E was supposed to climb 967 gear structures for detailed fire safety inspections by August 31 of this year, which according to the letter did not happen in time. Transmission lines are high-performance, high-voltage lines that are often supported by giant steel lattice towers – and which were responsible for major fires in 2018 and 2019.
Instead, PG&E had conducted 1,000 such climbing inspections outside of high-threat areas by Aug. 31. This mistake was referred to by Filip as “human error, lack of control, misunderstanding and lack of adequate escalation”. PG&E is now trying to complete the required inspections by Thanksgiving, he said.
In a statement, PG&E said it “shares the court’s focus on safety and recognizes that we must play a leadership role in reducing the risk of forest fires in northern and central California.” The company said it knew about Filip’s letter and would respond from Alsup by November 3.
JD Morris is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @thejdmorris