Victims: PG&E still has rickety power line near Paradise
SAN FRANCISCO— Pacific Gas & Electric is still operating a rickety power line near the one that ignited a 2018 wildfire that wiped out the Northern California city of Paradise and killed 85 people, according to an expert inspection conducted as part of a legal claim.
In an inspection just two months ago, an expert hired by the wildfire victims' attorneys found a power line with rusty equipment and some parts apparently held in place by electrical tape. The expert compared the power lines to a year earlier and found the safety concerns remained. PG&E was alerted about the potential hazards on the Cresta-Rio Oso line before the findings were made public Thursday, according to the victims'attorneys.
The potential hazards were spotted along a transmission line known as “Cresta-Rio Oso," about 100 yards (91 meters) ) from another line, known as Caribou-Palermo. A rusting piece of equipment that failed in 2018 on the Caribou-Palermo line has been blamed for causing the fire that destroyed thousands of homes and other buildings, mostly in Paradise.
Both the Cresta-Rio Oso and Caribou-Palermo lines are located in a canyon running along the Feather River in Butte County, about 25 miles from Paradise. PG&E had temporarily turned off the Cresta-Rio Oso line for maintenance before the destructive fire caused by the Caribou-Palermo line, which has since been permanently deactivated.
In a statement, PG&E said it re-inspected the problems flagged by the victim's expert and determined there were no immediate safety issues. But the utility also acknowledged some of the equipment needs to be fixed and and is still trying to schedule a time to turn off the Cresta-Rio Oso line so it can make the necessary repairs.
“We take questions about our infrastructure seriously because safety is our most important responsibility," the San Francisco company said.
But the latest findings may raise further doubts about PG&E's commitment to safety at time the company is trying to persuade California Gov. Gavin Newsom that the company has turned over a new leaf as it tries to emerge from a bankruptcy case stemming from more than $50 billion in claimed wildfire losses. Newsom has threatened a government takeover bid of PG&E unless the company proves it can operate more safely. The governor's office didn't respond to a request for comment Thursday.
A federal judge has also been pressing the utility to provide evidence that it has improved its safety practices and is thoroughly inspecting its transmission lines to reduce the risks of future fires.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup is overseeing PG&E as part of a five-year criminal probation imposed after the utility's natural gas lines triggered a deadly explosion in 2010. A federal jury found the company guilty of five counts of safety violations and the one count of obstruction.
Alsup responded swiftly after being informed about the potential problems on the Cresta-Rio Oso line in a letter from the expert inspector. He issued an order Thursday telling PG&E to be prepared to discuss the evidence during a Feb. 19 hearing in San Francisco.
PG&E has repeatedly said it has learned from past mistakes, prompting the company to intensify the inspection of 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometers) of overhead power lines in a service territory in Northern California that provides electricity to 16 million people.
In its statement, PG&E said it has inspected 730,000 transmission and distribution lines, as well as power substations, while examining about 25 million electrical components in areas highly susceptible to wildfires during a four-month period. The utility said it has already repaired parts of its system that posed an immediate danger to the surrounding community.