San Francisco Bay Guardian - March 12, 1997

 

 

BURNING SECRETS

PG&E fights to hide fire-safety records.

 

By Savannah Blackwell

 

In a recent newsletter provided with customers’ electric bills, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. trumpeted its recent maintenance programs with this boast: “PG&E prunes trees year-round to help ensure public safety near our electric wires and to provide you with safe, reliable power.”

 

The utility has good reason to blow some hot air about its tree-trimming practices. In recent years PG&E has been under fire from state and county officials as well as citizens and their advocates for cutting back on its tree-trimming program. As a result, critics say, avoidable fires and extensive property damage have been caused by sparks from tree limbs touching power lines. In the early 1990s PG&E sought to downsize its maintenance system to cut costs and prepare for competition.

 

Now district attorneys and fire officials throughout northern California are looking to Nevada County, where District Attorney Michael Ferguson has mounted the largest criminal case ever filed against the utility.

 

In February Ferguson charged PG&E with 746 counts of violating the state law requiring that the utility maintain safe clearance around power lines. Moreover, Ferguson has accused PG&E of a chronic and widespread pattern of negligence that resulted in the 1994 Trauner wildfire, which swept through the gold rush-era town of Rough and Ready and destroyed about a dozen homes as well as the town’s historic school house. PG&E, which admitted  that the fire was caused by a tree limb striking a high-voltage line, denies criminal negligence, according to court records.

 

Rough and Ready is about a 10-minute drive from Nevada City, where the case is being tried. Deputy District Attorney Jenny Ross, who is handling the case, expects jury selection to end sometime this week.

But already, Judge Carlos Baker Jr. has dealt the prosecution a few blows. First, Baker refused Ross’s request to introduce evidence of nearly 5,000 violations of the state’s power-line regulations during inspections between 1992 and 1995 by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

 

Ross had contended that the violations were relevant and incriminating. But Joseph Russoniello, the former U.S. Attorney for northern California and PG&E’s lead lawyer, convinced Baker that evidence of other PG&E violations might prejudice the jury.

 

In addition, Baker allowed PG&E to keep the company’s internal documents about its tree-trimming program sealed from the public. PG&E had contended that the documents contained “trade secrets,” but Ross argued that PG&E had not provided enough facts to prove this. One argument PG&E’s attorneys made was that the company is considering marketing its tree-trimming services to other utilities and that disclosing the documents might compromise those plans.

 

Attorneys for the San Jose Mercury News, which says it is participating in the case on behalf of the public’ right to know, argued that it is in the public’s interest for the documents to be released. In addition, they said, PG&E has not proved that release of the documents would jeopardize its business interests and that at any rate, the judge should require that the documents be carefully reviewed to see which contain trade secrets and which do not.

 

The Nevada County case, in which Ross is expected to argue that PG&E undercut its tree-trimming program to send money elsewhere, is significant in that it may succeed in sending a strong message to PG&E that it needs to protect the public from danger. The utility cut back on its tree-trimming program despite the fact that it was convicted on criminal charges in Sonoma County in 1990 for failing to provide proper clearance around power lines. In the third quarter of 1995 PG&E finally increased money spent on that program.

 

“I applaud Nevada County,” San Francisco district attorney Terence Hallinan told the Bay Guardian. “This will make the utility sit up and pay attention.” Officials from the state forestry department, which is assisting Nevada County and other counties in legal actions, are hoping that Hallinan is right. So do ratepayer advocates.

 

“If Nevada County is able to prove its claims, they’ll show PG&E’s willingness to ignore the maintenance of its system over the last decade caused a lot of people to go through needless suffering.” Bog Finkelstein, staff attorney at The Utility Reform Network (TURN), said. “It’s one more indication of the lengths PG&E will go to pad its pockets by cutting back on maintenance.”

 

According to David LeMay, the state forestry department’s deputy chief of law enforcement, if Nevada County wins and PG&E is put on probation, PG&E’s top officials could go to jail if the utility violates the state’s power-line clearance law. In Placer County, Deputy District Attorney Joe Barbara has filed a criminal lawsuit charging PG&E with more than 1,000 violations in failing to keep tree limbs away from power lines. That case stems from a 1992 wildfire started when a tree branch struck a PG&E power line. But Barbara told the Bay Guardian he will wait until the Nevada Country case is decided to see if his case is worth trying.

 

The utility is currently waging a legal and public relations battle to squelch the cases mounting against it. In Butte County, prosecutors have mounted a civil case against PG&E, charging that it violated state fire-protection codes 650 times by continually failing to monitor and inspect its electrical transmission and distribution lines. PG&E is trying to strike the case down on the grounds that only the Public Utilities Commission has jurisdiction over such matters, according to Deputy District Attorney Rob MacKenzie.

 

In 1994 alone the state forestry department notified the utility of 1,400 instances in which tree boughs were too close to power lines. The department has filed several lawsuits against the utility to recover the cost of suppressing fires, according to LeMay. In documents given to state forestry and fire officials, PG&E revealed in a Sept. 18, 1996 memo that in reviewing 39 percent of its overhead electric conductors, PG&E inspectors found more than 70,000 examples of trees either touching power lines or dangerously close to doing so.

 

An earlier judge on the Nevada Country case, Albert Dover, allowed Nevada County prosecutors (over the vehement protest of PG&E attorneys) to admit documents including PG&E’s computerized “Tree Inventory” program. That shows that a 1995 survey of 5 percent of PG&E’s overhead lines found more than 5,000 instances in which tree limbs were touching or were within four feet of electric lines.

 

In addition, a PG&E field operations division warned management that it was underfunding its tree-trimming program. Attorney Ron Miller obtained 1992 documents from PG&E in which officials in the utility’s Sierra Division (which includes Nevada Country) warned PG&E managers that cuts in its budget were undermining the divisions’ ability to protect the public. Miller has represented insurers of property owners in lawsuits against PG&E for failures to keep power lines clear of vegetation.

 

“This underfunding – will have a significant impact on the Sierra Division’s ability to safely provide reasonable levels of service,” the division writes in one document.

 

In a 1995 review of PG&E’s preventive maintenance program, the consulting firm Arthur Andersen found that the utility was plagued by tree-related outages and that these outages were the principal cause of momentary and sustained service interruptions. Arthur Andersen also found that electric-wire maintenance standards were not being enforced and that “insufficient resources were allocated” to maintenance activities. ■

 

 

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