State lawmakers, DA, introduce bill to hold PG&E accountable

A group of state legislators and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced the introduction of a bill Tuesday that would give the state attorney general and local district attorneys the power to reprimand utility companies for failure to comply with safety regulations.

Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, D-Orinda, and Sens. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, and Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, introduced the Utility Accountability and Wildfire Prevention Act of 2020 in an effort to hold utility companies like PG&E accountable when their equipment is found to have started a wildfire due to improper safety practices.

Currently, only the California Public Utilities Commission has a similar authority.

Many are wondering why more PG&E power lines aren't underground.

The group of legislators argued that while climate change is partially to blame for recent deadly fires across the state, utility equipment has also played a part in the severity of disasters like the Camp Fire.

"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 bestowed to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. The DTSC shares safety enforcement duties with district attorneys around the state. Under the bill, the state attorney general or a district attorney 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," 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 is the principal author of the bill. In addition to Glazer and Hill, the bill is cosponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and Assemblymembers David Chiu, D-San Francisco, Tim Grayson, D-Concord, Marc Levine, D-Marin County, Monique Lemon, D-Santa Barbara, Cottie Petrie-Norris, D-Laguna Beach, Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita, Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, and Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland. Bauer-Kahan's office expects the bill to go to committee next month.

PG&E did not immediately respond with a comment on the bill.