Pacific Gas & Electric told a federal judge it “strongly disagrees” with a Wall Street Journal story that said the utility knew its aging power lines posed a wildfire threat but avoided replacing or repairing them.
PG&E Corp. filed its response Wednesday after the judge in San Francisco ordered the utility to file a “paragraph-by-paragraph” response to the story.
The Journal, using documents obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act, reported in early July that PG&E delayed safety work on a power line that sparked a November wildfire that essentially wiped out the Northern California town of Paradise and killed 85 people. It was the deadliest and most destructive fire in state history.
The newspaper said even before the fire, the company knew that 49 of the steel towers on the transmission line known as the Caribou-Palermo line needed to be replaced, and another 57 needed replacement of their hardware and aluminum lines, but delayed the safety work for five years.
In its rebuttal, PG&E acknowledged it had proposed replacing 60 towers on the line to meet a federal requirement for utilities nationwide to identify areas where conductors may be sagging too close to vegetation or to each other and address the issues. The utility said the tower identified as the ignition point of the Camp Fire was not one of the towers slated for replacement.
The utility disputed the article’s suggestion that it neglected maintenance.
“The suggestion that PG&E has ignored investment in its transmission lines is inaccurate,” the utility said in court documents, adding that it spent $140 million to $294 million annually on transmission-related work from 2008 to 2018.
The Journal said in a statement that it stood by its reporting.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’s probation for a natural gas pipeline explosion in 2010 that killed eight people in San Bruno, also asked the company to explain its payment of $5 billion in dividends in recent years “at a time when PG&E was aware of the problems” named in the Journal report.
In its response to that question, PG&E said the money it gets from ratepayers is not enough to support its operations and infrastructure investments, so it often turns to equity markets to raise capital. Dividends help attract investors looking for steady returns, PG&E said.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January in the face of some $30 billion in potential liability from 2017 and 2018 wildfire damage.