hill with power line tower and brushes on fire

SAN FRANCISCO — A day after PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection from what could be multi-billion dollar wildfire liability costs, a federal judge Wednesday declared the beleaguered utility in violation of its probation for the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.

“Does a judge turn a blind eye and let PG&E continue what you’re doing, let you keep killing people?” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said during a Wednesday court hearing. “Can’t we have electricity that is delivered safely in this state?”

The finding sets the stage for the judge to add additional and costly terms to Pacific Gas & Electric’s criminal probation for the deadly pipeline blast — requirements the utility says could cost billions of dollars and lead to customer rates raising five-fold.

Alsup opened the hearing before a packed courtroom by comparing PG&E to a drug dealer who violates probation by committing a different crime.

“You’ve got to be on your absolute best behavior — no more crimes,” Alsup warned. He then noted that PG&E equipment was involved in starting 17 recent wildfires.

“Those fires killed 22 people, burned alive in their cars and homes,” Alsup said. “There is one clear pattern here: PGE is starting these fires. Global warming is not starting these fires.”

Alsup, who is monitoring the utility’s federal probation following its conviction in the deadly pipeline case, has warned that he’s contemplating beefing up terms including a thorough inspection of the company’s electricity grid and a wide-ranging vegetation management plan ahead of the upcoming Northern California fire season.

PG&E wrote in a court filing that such a move would necessitate a $75 billion to $150 billion investment and the hiring of 650,000 workers for the company that has claimed it’s insolvent due to significant wildfire liabilities in the last two years.

A PG&E lawyer told the judge it would take eight years to clear trees in areas at high risk for wildfires under new more stringent clearances because there are not enough specialized tree trimmers for the dangerous work. PG&E can’t just clear-cut trees near power lines because private property owners and communities fight them.

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