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Sunday October 25th, 2020 6:12PM

US judge eases wildfire safety plan for California utility

By The Associated Press
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A U.S. judge overseeing a criminal case against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. called the California utility's efforts to prevent trees from hitting its power lines and starting wildfires "dismal" but scaled back his proposals to prevent its equipment from causing more blazes.

Judge William Alsup said in an order late Tuesday that he's now considering making PG&E comply with targets in a wildfire mitigation plan that the company submitted to California regulators.

He also proposed that a court-appointed monitor oversee the utility's efforts to clear trees and branches.

The judge previously considered ordering PG&E to reinspect its entire electric grid, remove or trim all trees that could fall on its power lines and cut off power during certain wind conditions.

PG&E pushed back against those proposals, saying in court documents that they would endanger lives, could cost as much as $150 billion and would interfere with the work of federal and state regulators.

In response to Alsup's latest order, the company said it's committed to completing work on its wildfire plan.

"We continue to work with regulators, lawmakers and our community partners across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions for our state," a company statement said.

In the plan submitted last month, PG&E promised to spend more than $2 billion this year to improve wildfire prevention. The utility said it would step up its tree cutting and trimming and expand its use of blackouts.

Alsup on Tuesday also proposed ordering PG&E not to pay any dividends to shareholders until it meets his vegetation management requirements, including compliance with a state law requiring the utility to clear vegetation within certain distances of electric lines.

The judge, however, noted that PG&E had previously suspended cash dividends.

Alsup is overseeing a criminal conviction against PG&E stemming from a 2010 gas line explosion that killed eight people in the San Francisco Bay Area. The judge's proposals follow devastating wildfires in California in 2017 and 2018 — some of which investigators have blamed on PG&E equipment — and would be part of the utility's probation in the criminal case.

Alsup said his goal is to prevent PG&E equipment from causing any wildfires during the 2019 fire season.

The company sought bankruptcy protection in January in the face of billions of dollars in potential liability from recent wildfires.

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