An ongoing dispute between PG&E and the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District over fire safety procedures has escalated, with PG&E filing a lawsuit seeking to overturn restrictions on its work procedures.
The lawsuit, due to be heard in Contra Costa County Superior Court on July 23, asked the court to invalidate Ordinance No. 35, which prohibits PG&E and any other electric utility from performing non-emergency electrical work — or any electrical work during periods of high fire danger — within district boundaries without 48 hours’ prior notice to the district.
The ordinance also prohibits PG&E from deploying a “safety and infrastructure team” without notice, and it allows the district to fine the utility and recover costs for overseeing the company’s electrical utility work after each violation.
In its lawsuit, PG&E claims the ordinance exceeds the Fire Protection District’s regulatory authority, infringing on jurisdiction that belongs to the California Public Utilities Commission.
“These requirements interfere with PG&E’s ability to respond flexibly to changing conditions in order to protect public safety,” the company said in its complaint.
“The safety of our customers, employees, first-responders and the communities that we serve is PG&E’s most important responsibility,” added PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman.
The current dispute has its origins in a plan PG&E presented to San Ramon Valley Fire officials last year. The Wildlife Mitigation Plan for minimizing the risk of wildfires caused by PG&E equipment was approved by the CPUC. It provides for the deployment of PG&E safety and infrastructure teams to oversee the utility’s electrical maintenance work.
The plan met strong opposition from the fire district, however, which was disinclined to let PG&E decide procedures for protecting district residents and their property from fire danger.
“This is especially true of a company that has repeatedly shown that it cannot oversee or safely manage its own activities,” Fire Chief Paige Meyer said. “They tell us that their ‘hot’ work is so dangerous that they need their own firefighter crews to stand by and monitor the work of their maintenance crews? In other words, PG&E intends to provide its own oversight? That’s not going to happen in our district.”
PG&E recently emerged from bankruptcy, having been saddled with billions of dollars in liabilities from numerous catastrophic wildfires, including a devastating fire that killed 85 in Northern California in 2018. Investigators from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection determined that the Kincaid Fire in October 2019, which burned nearly 80,000 acres and destroyed 375 structures in Sonoma County, was the result of faulty PG&E electrical transmission lines.
A Contra Costa County grand jury, in its 2020 report on wildfire preparedness, recommended that county cities and fire boards consider mechanisms such as the San Ramon Valley Fire ordinance “that enable the fire district or fire department to recover labor and equipment costs from PG&E for overseeing electrical utility work that presents a high fire risk.”
In May, the district responded to the explosion of a power transformer that occurred while PG&E maintenance crews performed work on-site, with two company safety and infrastructure teams on standby alert. Per its ordinance, the district fined the company $1,000 for failing to provide advance notice of the deployments and billed the utility $1,077 for costs incurred, demanding payment by July 31.
But the district insists the ordinance is not about money. At $61 million, San Ramon Valley Fire maintains one of the most robust cash reserves among fire agencies in the Bay Area, equaling more than nine months of district operating expenditures.
“We are doing this to stand up for our citizens,” Meyer said.
PG&E insists the ordinance will hinder the company’s ability to take needed safety actions during times of high fire risk.
“The 48-hour notice requirement isn’t feasible, especially related to a Public Safety Power Shutoff event,” Nauman said. “We also need flexibility to move crews performing non-emergency work around depending on many other factors, including permitting, rights of way, access, etc.”
Nauman also reiterated that PG&E crews have a distinct purpose.
“To be clear, our Safety and Infrastructure Protection teams are utility workers whose primary role is to support PG&E work activities and support fire prevention at PG&E worksites. They are not first responders.”
Despite the lawsuit, Nauman expressed some hope that PG&E and the fire district might manage to negotiate a solution to the current impasse.
“We continue to have discussions with the district,” he said, “and hope that this situation can be resolved as both PG&E and the district know the importance of public safety.”
But fire district officials don’t seem charitably disposed toward the utility.
“The company had the opportunity to review the ordinance before we voted on it but we never heard from them,” fire district board President Don Parker said. “We just don’t want their people setting up their fire department in our district, and say ‘Trust us.’ There’s not a lot of trust left there.”