A California utility’s role in igniting wildfires last year could allow a judge to find that it violated terms of its criminal sentence in a 2010 gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people, federal prosecutors said Monday.
In a court filing, the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco said state investigations blamed Pacific Gas & Electric power lines for some fires in October 2017. Investigators also found evidence that state law was violated.
“These facts, specifically if PG&E started a wildfire by reckless operation or maintenance of its power lines, may serve as a basis for the court to find that the defendant corporation violated” terms of its probation, prosecutors said.
A U.S. judge in 2017 put PG&E on five years of probation following its conviction on pipeline safety charges stemming from an explosion of one of its pipelines in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The filing by prosecutors came after a judge overseeing the pipeline case asked PG&E to explain any role it may have played in a massive wildfire last month that leveled the Northern California town of Paradise and killed at least 86 people.
Investigators have not determined the cause of the wildfire that began Nov. 8, but speculation has centered on PG&E, which reported an outage around the time and place that the fire ignited.
The judge could impose new requirements on the utility if it’s found to have violated its probation in the pipeline case. The company already has been ordered to pay a $3 million fine, run television commercials publicizing its convictions and have an independent monitor oversee the safety of its gas pipeline system.
PG&E said it is focused on assessing infrastructure to further improve safety and help protect customers from the “ever increasing” threat of wildfires.
“We are committed to working together with our state and community partners and across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive safety solutions that provide safe, reliable gas and electric service to our customers in the future,” the utility said in a statement.
In a court filing late Monday, it said any determination that it started a wildfire by recklessly operating power lines in violation of law would have bearing on its probation in the criminal case.
State fire officials had yet to release their conclusions about the fire that destroyed Paradise, PG&E said in its filing. But it said PG&E employees working at nearby facilities were among the first to observe the fire, and one of them contacted a PG&E switchboard, which then called emergency services.
Prosecutors said in their court filing that a judge could find PG&E violated terms of its probation that banned it from committing another crime and requiring that it implement an effective compliance and ethics program.
The California attorney general told the judge Friday that PG&E could face charges as serious as involuntary manslaughter or murder if investigators determine that reckless operation or maintenance of power equipment caused any recent wildfires in the state.
The court filings came after Judge William Alsup said last month that he wanted to know whether any requirements in the utility’s criminal sentence “might be implicated” if PG&E equipment ignited a wildfire and what steps an independent monitor has taken to improve safety and reporting on power lines and fires.
Prosecutors said they did not yet have “sufficient information” about any role PG&E may have played in the Paradise fire or other fires this year to determine if the utility may have violated its probation.
They said that after wildfires in 2017, the monitor looked at the adequacy of PG&E’s vegetation management plan and how it maintains and inspects electric poles and other equipment. They did not elaborate on any possible findings of that review.