New State Bill Would Expand Local Enforcement Powers Over Utilities

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

By Bay City News / KQED 

Under new state legislation announced Tuesday, California's attorney general and local district attorneys would be able to pursue legal action against utility companies that violate safety regulations.

Introduced by a group of Bay Area legislators, in partnership with Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, the Utility Accountability and Wildfire Prevention Act is an effort to hold utilities like PG&E accountable for safely maintaining their infrastructure and properly trimming vegetation near power lines to reduce the threat of wildfire.

Currently, that oversight role falls squarely on the California Public Utilities Commission, and if a utility is suspected of violating regulations, local authorities must seek redress through that agency.

But in the wake of a series of deadly wildfires in 2017 and 2018 found to have been sparked by PG&E equipment, a growing chorus of state officials contend that the CPUC can’t go it alone in ensuring all utilities in the state comply with safety rules.

"Local eyes and ears on the ground that really know what’s happening in their community is crucial to our safety," said Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, D-Orinda, who co-authored the bill. "They’re the ones that know if the trees are being trimmed, because they’re the ones living in our neighborhoods."

Under the bill, the CPUC would remain the primary entity responsible for oversight of utilities, but the state attorney general and local district attorneys would have the authority to take utility companies to court and hold them liable for up to $100,000 per day for each violation. Utilities could also be charged with criminal violations for failing to maintain proper safety standards.

"Our job is to ensure the safety of our communities," DA Nancy O'Malley said. "And this legislation gives us the tools to prevent further catastrophic loss of life and property by ensuring the utility companies abide by the laws."

Bauer-Kahan said she was shaken by two fires in her district in November, both of which were found to be caused, in part, by PG&E equipment failures.

"We've brought this bill forward because our state is facing dire circumstances," Bauer-Kahan said. "Four of the five largest wildfires in California's history have been in the past seven years. In 2019 alone, we endured over 30 wildfires that burned 1,000 acres or more, with a number of those fires started due to downed electrical lines and faulty equipment."

According to Bauer-Kahan's office, the bill is modeled after the authority structure of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which shares safety enforcement duties with district attorneys around the state.

Firefighters and other local field workers are the ones who typically first notice unsafe environmental conditions in their own communities, Bauer-Kahan said, and right now, there’s not a clear channel to immediately report those instances. The new legislation, she said, would allow them to directly contact a division within their local DA’s office.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who co-authored the legislation, called the CPUC an "under-resourced” and “sometimes compromised" agency. In 2010, a natural gas pipeline owned by PG&E exploded, killing eight people in San Bruno, part of Hill’s district.

"California utilities have been able to get away with lax enforcement of their work," he said.

The CPUC did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the legislation, while PG&E said the company is still reviewing the bill and has not taken a position.

"We share the Legislature’s focus on safety and recognize that California’s utilities must take a leading role in reducing the risk of wildfire in the communities we have the privilege to serve," said PG&E spokesman James Noonan.