PG&E Agrees to Fire & Chrome 6 Fines

By Published On: March 23, 2012

Pacific Gas & Electric and one of its contractors agreed to pay $29.5 million to settle two lawsuits arising from wildfires ignited by falling transmission lines in 2004, according to a March 16 U.S. Forest Service announcement. One fire was said to be caused by a PG&E contractor causing a tree to fall and snap a transmission line in the El Dorado Forest. The fire burned for three days and cost $3 million to suppress, according to the Forest Service. The other fire was in the Trinity Forest and said to be caused by a large tree falling on a utility high voltage line. The wildfire burned for five days, destroying considerable habitat and costing $5 million to extinguish. The federal government charged PG&E and its contractor for “failing to identify and remove the hazard tree that started” the fire. U.S. Forest Service’s regional forester Randy Moore stated, “We anticipate these settlement funds will allow us to achieve our ecological restoration goals on the forests impacted by these fires.” In related news, PG&E the same day agreed to pay $3.6 million for failing to contain the growing plume of chromium 6-contaminated groundwater in the town of Hinkley. “This is the first time PG&E has been fined” for contaminating the town’s drinking water supply, said Lisa Dernback, regional water board senior engineering geologist. The serious contamination--attributed to use of the carcinogenic compound at a compressor station in the 1950s and 1960s--led to massive class action and was the subject of the movie Erin Brockovich. The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board approved the settlement the evening of March 15. The regional board is to receive $1.8 million, which is to be directed to its wastewater discharge fund. The other half of the funds remain in PG&E’s pocket for funding a replacement water supply project at a Hinkley school, which is to be on line in 2017. A settlement was reached after PG&E was charged with failing to meet a regional water board cleanup order deadline on Dec. 31, 2008. The amount of the fine was based on 1,093 days of being in violation of a cleanup and abatement order deadline, said Dernback. “We have a difference of opinion,” countered Jeff Smith, PG&E spokesperson. Although PG&E agreed to settle, Smith insisted the utility was not in violation of the cleanup order and that there was no fine. He added that the utility objected to a fine because the money would have ended up in the state’s general fund, not in a water board account. Smith attributed the growing plume to PG&E expanding its groundwater testing to areas previously untested. He said new wells found water contamination above 3.1 parts per billion. Smith declined to reveal the levels of chromium 6 found. Since the carcinogenic substance was discovered in the drinking water in 1987, the plume has continued to grow. According to a PG&E Jan. 31 report, the plume has continued to migrate and is currently five miles long and two miles wide. If PG&E’s replacement water supply project costs exceed $1.8 million, the utility must make up the difference. Any leftover funds are to be sent to the water board, according to Dernback. In 2010, the regional board ordered an investigation after PG&E reported the groundwater contamination had spread, and was two miles wide and a mile long. At that time, the board was not considering slapping PG&E with a violation (Current, Nov. 19, 2010).

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