Judge Grills PG&E Over Cable That Failed Before Massive Wildfire

By Joel Rosenblatt | November 5, 2019

A federal judge overseeing the probation of utility giant PG&E Corp. is demanding information on a power line that failed minutes before a massive wildfire broke out in Northern California last month.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup ordered PG&E to respond to several questions about so-called jumper cables after the San Francisco utility giant disclosed that one had broken where the Kincade fire erupted in Sonoma County on Oct. 23. The blaze is still burning north of San Francisco and has damaged or destroyed almost 450 structures.

PG&E’s equipment has already been tied to wildfires that devastated parts of Northern California in 2017 and 2018, saddling the company with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and forcing it into bankruptcy. Last year, a loose PG&E jumper wire was found to have contributed to the Camp fire, which killed 86 people and destroyed the California town of Paradise.

“What scenarios could plausibly cause a jumper cable to separate from a transmission line during a windstorm?” Alsup asked in his order to PG&E. “Should we now be worried that other jumper cables inspected in the same manner have potential failures that have gone undetected?”

PG&E said it’s reviewing the judge’s order and will respond by a Nov. 29 deadline. Shares pared some gains, and trading was briefly halted. The stock was up 13% at the close on Monday at $7.27.

Wildfires have continued to erupt despite PG&E taking extreme measures at prevention. Last month, it plunged millions of people into darkness four times so that high winds wouldn’t knock down live wires. The company is under investigation for several fires that have broken out in recent weeks amid high winds, but the Kincade fire is the largest among them.

Alsup has asked PG&E to report on how much damage has been done and how many lives have been lost in blazes that its equipment may have caused so far this year. Given the widespread shutoffs, Alsup said in his order that he’s inclined to think damages and deaths are lower this year, “but the court (and the public) would appreciate a more precise answer.”

Mass Blackouts

Alsup said he also wants PG&E to respond to a televised report suggesting that the mass blackouts themselves have sparked wildfires.

The utility has said it actually switched off lower-voltage distribution lines before the Kincade fire broke out in anticipation of high winds, but the company kept larger transmission lines energized. PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson has said the jumper cable — along a transmission line — had been recently inspected and was in good condition.

The state of California and the U.S. government are meanwhile seeking to recover billions of dollars in firefighting costs from PG&E as part of its bankruptcy case. PG&E disclosed the claims in a filing late Friday. The three biggest claims total more than $6 billion and would compensate the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

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