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PG&E probation to end next month – Chico Enterprise-Record


U.S. Federal judge William Alsup announced Wednesday that he would not extend Pacific Gas and Electric’s five-year probation beyond next month’s expiration, largely because of the fact that the U.S. District Attorney’s Office did not ask for an extension.

He laid out what caused the Dixie Fire that destroyed the community of Greenville in the summer and accused the company of failing to take responsibility for the fire.

He noted in that order, “PG&E has gone on a crime spree and will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California.”

He also said that the purpose of the probation was to rehabilitate the company, a goal that he said he failed to achieve.

He said the main factor that led to the Dixie Fire was an ingrained culture to keep the meters turning.

He said the fire was caused when a tall tree fell on the power line in the area, at three-phase circuit, and two of the three conductors shorted each other out in the crash and blew their two fuses.

However, Alsup said the third phase, the one with an unblown fuse, remained energized upstream from the fuses meaning they were energized where the tree had fallen.

“With the tree leaning against an energized line, the tree became a ground fault,” he said, “Over several hours, the large tree, though a poor electrical conductor, as are all trees, conducted enough power to ground, as will all trees, to overheat and to burst into flames.”

He also said in his order, that when flames finally broke out the burn area was only about 600 to 800 square feet. But by the time PG&E got to the site at 4:40 p.m. on July 13, “the Dixie Fire was underway.”

He also asserted that once the company arrived it should have cut the power in the third phase by tripping the third fuse far earlier than it did.

“The first thing PG&E did, upon arrival, was to cut the power in the third phase (by tripping the third fuse,” he wrote. ”Had power been shut off hours earlier from the source or Turnoff Switch 941, the tree would have stopped overheating and the fire would never have occurred. “

He also noted that once Cal Fire’s report is made public, the public will learn whether the company should have inspected and found the hazard tree and removed it before it could fall on that line.

He acknowledged that it wasn’t entirely the company’s fault that it arrived 5 hours later to the source of the outage, because of county bridgework, but he said the company should have de-energized this circuit until the cause of the outage could have been determined.

He noted it hours went by without the company knowing if it was if a blown fuse that had cut the power to the Cuesta Dam and tunnel or if the cause was a tree that had somehow fallen into a power line or if a tree had become a ground fault where a live wire conducts power into the ground and gradually overheats before bursting into flames.

“Put differently, for hour after hour, PG&E could not rule out the United States District Court Northern District of California possibility of a ground fault since it knew power was still being fed into the circuit. In the face of this danger, wasn’t the safe course to turn off the power until the trouble could be traced?” he asked.

The judge noted that there were only three customers being serviced by the line, and asked — with two of the three customers without power and the only other customer was the railroad why didn’t the company simply shut off the power if safety was the real priority?

He noted that the railroad had a backup power source, he argued there was another reason why the company failed to shut the power off earlier than they did.

“The true reason, I’m convinced after studying PG&E for five years, is that PG&E simply preferred to leave the power on (and the meters turning) until there was actual knowledge of an actual fire or at least of an imminent fire danger,” he said.

He also noted that the company started the “Fast Trip Mitigation” for its high fire threat districts while the Dixie Fire raged.

“With the turn of a knob, PG&E adjusted the settings on its reclosers to shut off power more quickly (and more often) when its monitors show a disturbance on the lines in high fire threat districts,” Alsup wrote.

He said that program would have prevented the Dixie Fire and said the only reason it wasn’t used was because of the ingrained culture of keeping the meters running.

He also charged that an example of the company not taking responsibility is statements by the troubleman who arrived on the scene the day of the Dixie fire, who  radioed to his dispatcher that a tree had fallen on the power line and started a fire, saying it not just once but twice.

But according to Alsup, the troubleman refused to stand by his first-hand statements nine weeks later at an evidentiary hearing.

“Instead, he testified that maybe it had been started by lightning,” Alsup wrote. “The weather records for the region, however, showed clear skies for at least a week before the fire. Cal Fire has since confirmed that it was the tree that fell on the power line and caused the fire, not lightning. This type of evasion has occurred time and again over the last five years.”

He also asserted that the company only takes responsibility when it is forced to or convenient.



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