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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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When Profits Take Precedence Over Safety Again, and Again

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Growing number of lawsuits blame Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) for the blaze in Northern California that killed two people, destroyed 475 homes and burned 110 square miles. It was the seventh most destructive wildfire in state history. The fire began on September 9, 2015 near Butte Mountain Road, a rural byway east of Jackson in southern Amador County. It extended into Calaveras County, driven by gusting winds. Cal Fire investigators are still working to determine what sparked the massive fire, but PG&E said one of its power lines may be to blame.

The lawsuits allege that a PG&E power line touching brush sparked the fire in the tinder-dry foothills during the drought. The claims blame PG&E for negligent and improper operation of the power lines and equipment, and negligent failure to maintain vegetation under prescribed California regulations and law. The rules generally require utilities to keep their lines clear of trees and other vegetation, with distances ranging from 18 inches for low-voltage lines in normal conditions to 10 feet of clearance for high voltage lines in areas of Southern California where the threat of fire is extreme.

Plaintiff attorneys said PG&E has a long record of poor safety practices; Butte fire is just the latest example. My readers may recall the San Bruno pipeline explosion in a San Francisco suburb that killed eight people. An investigation found PG&E’s safety management of its pipelines was overall deficient and ineffective. In an audit, it was discovered that the company chose to use surplus revenues for general corporate purposes, including hefty bonuses rather than improving gas safety. If management used those funds to maintain and repair the pipeline when it should have, the cost to the company would have been far less than the $1.4 billion in penalties that was imposed. PG&E conceded that its past operations should have been better. Chairman Tony Earley even went so far as to say, “We are deeply sorry for this tragic event and we have dedicated ourselves to re-earning the trust of our customers and the communities we serve. The lessons of this tragic event will not be forgotten.” This latest incident does not support that position.

In April, President of the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco, Michael Picker said that although the company made improvements after the San Bruno explosion, he questioned whether PG&E is “simply too large — spread across a sizeable portion of a large state, and encompassing diverse functions such as both gas transmission and gas distribution, as well as electric service — to succeed at safety.” Pickler said he would ask the commission’s staff to study “the culture of safety” and the structure of the utility, but he did not elaborate what actions the commission could take if it concluded that PG&E was too big to operate safely. PG&E is one of the country’s largest power utilities with 9.7 million gas and electric customers.

PG&E has shown that they will say just about anything to have the public believe that they have learned from their mistakes and will do everything possible to look out for the public’s safety. What a farce! It is obvious they are still putting corporate profits over public safety; they are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives. After all, what are a few thousand ruined lives compared to the opportunity to get a hefty bonus?

Safety, and human life, should be considered more important in our society than corporate profit and greed. Simple, inexpensive, safety measures could have prevented the San Bruno explosion on September 9, 2010, and it could have prevented the devastating Butte Mountain fire that began exactly five years later. We will await the answer that Michael Pickler posed – Is PG&E too big to operate safety? If the answer is yes, what will be the next step?

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.