A federal judge in San Francisco overseeing Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s (PG&E) probation following its criminal conviction in the fatal September 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion, demanded answers this week about the utility's role in the deadly wildfire in Northern California that has killed scores of people.
Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a two-page order with four questions he wants answered by Dec. 31. Two of the questions attempt to determine if the five year probation sentence and $3 million fine "might be implicated" if the utility is found to have acted recklessly in its operations and maintenance related to the wildfires.
The San Bruno sentence specifically called out any further federal, state or local crimes, and inaccurate, slow or failed reporting of information by PG&E. Alsup also asked for specific steps taken by the court-assigned safety monitor overseeing PG&E's safety and reporting on the wildfires, and for an "accurate and complete statement of the role” PG&E played in the recent Camp Fire in Butte County.
The judge also directed the four questions to the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco, which prosecuted PG&E for the San Bruno incident, and to the monitor overseeing the utility's ongoing gas pipeline safety programs.
In 2016 PG&E was found guilty by a federal jury in San Francisco on five of 11 counts of violating natural gas pipeline safety regulations in San Bruno's gas transmission pipeline failure. Jurors, who deliberated for seven days, convicted PG&E for failing to gather risk information and to classify a gas pipeline as high risk.
No PG&E employees were charged in the federal criminal prosecution, but the San Francisco-based combination utility faced fines of up to $3 million for the convictions. PG&E already has withstood several billion dollars in regulatory and civil penalties.
The company has maintained that it was not guilty. PG&E could have been slapped with up to $562 million in fines if convicted on all 27 counts originally brought by prosecutors. Several days into the jury deliberations, prosecutors said they would not pursue the full fine.
While there is speculation about the Camp Fire's cause, investigators have not determined a one yet. The fire began Nov. 8, and PG&E's utility lines in Northern California may be to blame. Considered the worst in state history, the Camp Fire has killed 88 people and destroyed more than 13,000 residences.
PG&E has reported two separate electric line incidents that took place around the time and location where the fire is thought to have started.