Lawmakers announced a bill Tuesday that would give power to the state Attorney General and local District Attorneys to bring civil or criminal action against a utility company for failing to comply with safety standards and regulations.
The bill, AB 2356, is the latest in the fallout of California’s 2017 and 2018 wildfires to hold companies like Pacific Gas & Electric accountable when their equipment is found to have started blazes because of improper safety practices.
“We’ve seen a real failure to maintain equipment,” said Tri-Valley Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, who authored the bill. “We need them to do the work to maintain the lines to keep us safe.”
Bauer-Kahan, D-Orinda, and Sens. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda and Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, joined with Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley on Tuesday to announce the “Utility Accountability and Wildfire Prevention Act of 2020.”
Bauer-Kahan said the bill is “really about prevention.” It provides the Attorney General and local District Attorneys with authority to bring action that now is held by only the Public Utilities Commission.
The legislation is modeled after enforcement powers jointly held by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and local district attorneys to bring action against companies and individuals who violate state safety regulations.
Under AB 2356, district attorneys and the Attorney General could file civil or criminal e action if a utility fails to take precautions against causing wildfires, including managing vegetation and trimming trees around power lines.
“Our state is facing dire circumstances. Four of the five largest wildfires in California’s history have happened in the past seven years,” Bauer-Kahan said. “The devastating loss of loved ones, homes and in some cases, entire communities, must not be endured again.”
Bauer-Kahan said that empowering local jurisdictions to enforce existing safety regulations can “stop the next disaster before it starts.”
“This is a statewide crisis and this bill will help us defend our communities from negligent utilities,” she said.
The Assemblywoman said that the deadly wildfires can be partly attributed to climate change, but also to decades of utility company mismanagement and putting profits over public safety.
The inability to depend on the equipment resulted in PG&E’s “public safety power shutoffs” in October and November, to prevent the chance of starting fires in windy weather, Bauer-Kahan said. Millions of people lost power for days.
Glazer said the bill is a “new tool to keep us safe.”
“We must do all we can to force PG&E to run an electricity grid that protects lives and property from wildfires when the wind blows,” Glazer said.
Fire investigators said last May that PG&E electrical transmission lines caused 2018’s deadly Camp Fire in Paradise. Eighty-five people died and more than 150,000 acres burned.
PG&E, the state’s largest utility company, filed for bankruptcy last year while dealing with $30 billion in claims of liability for causing wildfires in California in 2017 and 2018.