SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously Thursday to delay until next year a decision on accepting a proposed legal settlement between the commission and PG&E for the San Francisco-based utility's role in causing the Dixie Fire in 2021.
The commission's Safety and Enforcement Division is proposing a $45 million penalty for the utility, $40 million of which will be used by PG&E to digitalize its records over the next five years.
The commission also voted to order a list of changes for the utility to make for causing a total of 17 fires in 2017 and 2018, including four in Sonoma County and one in Napa County. The commission issued four corrective actions for PG&E to take for its role in the deadly fires.
Commissioner Darcie Houck made a motion to delay the commission's approval of the Dixie Fire settlement until its next meeting. It was seconded by Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma, who amended the motion to delay the decision by two meetings, rather than one.
Both said they had more questions on the details of the confidential settlement worked out by the commission's legal staff and the utility. Neither indicated that they would ultimately oppose the settlement, but urged more transparency about how the money would be spent, and whether the settlement essentially allowed PG&E to count money it was already prepared to spend on digitalizing its records as a penalty.
"The digitalization of records, I'm not clear what that means, and what exactly the $40 million is going for," Houck said. "I'd like more information and specifics on what the transition from paper to digitalized records actually means, how much that work is expected to cost, and what the benefits of that work are likely to be," she said.
She also said she had questions on what sort of oversight there would be for the digitalization project, which is meant to facilitate more efficient inspections of the utility when the commission requests information. The penalty is essentially meant to speed up and enforce the utility's process, which it has been engaged in since 2016.
The item will now appear on the commission's agenda for its meeting on Jan. 11.
The settlement, which would be passed by the commission as an administrative consent order, or ACO, outlines $5 million in other penalties that would be split between the state's general fund and tribal governments that were impacted by the fire, which started when a tree fell on PG&E equipment near the Cresta Dam in Plumas County.
The Dixie Fire ultimately grew to over 963,000 acres, becoming the second-largest fire in the state's history. It burned for 104 days before it was contained by Cal Fire. One person died and more than 1,300 structures were destroyed.
Shiroma pointed out that the CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division, or SED, had identified seven violations by PG&E related to the fire and said the commission's Public Advocates Office raised several questions about the settlement in an Oct. 30 letter to commissioners.
That letter, authored by Nathaniel Skinner, a commission safety branch program manager, objected to the proposed settlement for its failure to make the utility address the underlying issues that caused the fire.
"The proposed ACO is flawed insofar as it does not require PG&E to investigate and remediate the contributing factors that led to the ignition of the Dixie Fire," the letter said.
The public advocates' letter also objected to the fact that the utility did not accept responsibility for any of the seven violations. PG&E said it would not dispute three, without admitting guilt, and said it disagreed with the other four.
"PG&E 'specifically and expressly denies any fault, negligence, imprudence, or violation with respect to the Dixie Fire and, except as explicitly specified, any other matters that SED identified in its investigation into the Dixie Fire,'" the letter said, citing the ACO.
The public advocates office recommended altering the agreement in several ways, most notably to address the root causes of the Dixie Fire, such as requiring a stricter policy to de-energize equipment when conditions call for it, performing an audit of related safety procedures, and increasing oversight.
"While it is proper for PG&E to transition away from legacy hard copy records, doing so will not address many of the factors that led to the Dixie Fire," the letter said.
The corrective actions the utility was ordered to take related to the 2017-18 fires included identifying and replacing deteriorated bare conductors, implementing safety measures for system fuses, deploying early fault detection on utility lines, and further fund a study on grounding methods and another logistics.
The actions will cost PG&E over $63 million to take. It was already fined more than $2.1 billion in penalties related to the fires, which included the Adobe, Norrbom, Oakmont/Pythian, and Pocket Fires that originated in Sonoma County, and the Atlas Fire in Napa County.
The fires consisted of a series of 16 fires in 2017 and the Camp Fire in 2018, for a total of 17 wildfires that were caused by various events like trees falling on energized wires and equipment components failing, according to the CPUC.
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