Ten years ago, a pipeline exploded, causing a massive fire that devastated the suburban neighborhoods in San Bruno, California. Eight people were killed. Recently, when commenting on the legal aftermath, at least one federal judge, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, severely criticized the company responsible, Pacific Gas & Electric. That public dressing down was just the beginning.
Since that initial explosion, countless fires have raged across California, and these fires are being blamed on “poorly maintained power lines” that fell under the auspices of PG&E. Thousands of homes were destroyed and at least 130 people were killed. In response, Alsup said, “PG&E neglected the maintenance, it’s quite clear, even though they won’t admit it… I am going to do everything I can to protect this state from more death and destruction from this convicted felon…”
After the deaths in 2010, the electric provider was convicted of six felony counts, including falsifying records and other safety violations. Subsequently, PG&E was placed on five years of criminal probation. It was Alsup’s purview to review the company’s actions while under criminal probation. The judge’s estimation and response was direct and unflattering.
Media reports say that Alsup called the actions of the company, even during probation, “abysmal,” adding that there is no doubt the company was negligent, and that it had failed to hire the adequate number of employees to properly maintain and protect the aging power lines.
PG&E countered that they had not been negligent, and that the company had followed the terms of the probation, even as the utility was saddled with more than $50 billion in potential liabilities, leading to a bankruptcy filing in early 2019.
That’s not a message that looks to be gaining any traction. Given the tragic loss of life and property damage being blamed, partially but significantly, on negligence on the part of the utility provider, the public is not at all interested in hearing how PG&E followed proper procedure.
Judge Alsup went even further, stating that he believes some of the fires may have been prevented had the company acted responsibly, investing in proper infrastructure maintenance rather than giving big bonuses to executives.
The picture painted by the judge’s version of events is stark, clear, and hard: a greedy corporation refusing to learn from one mistake and continuing bad behavior leading to compounded tragedy. Even criminal conviction did not inspire the company to change, leading to further loss. So far, PG&E has not offered much in the way of response to this narrative, and public opinion is growing more angry and frustrated with the company.
Sooner, rather than later, PG&E will need to respond, addressing both its perceived failures and offering a better way forward, because this PR crisis does not seem to be going away.