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PG&E wins court approval to set up $105 million wildfire assistance fund

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – PG&E Corp may set up a $105 million housing fund for victims of 2017 and 2018 wildfires in California, which set records for devastation and were blamed on the utility’s equipment, the judge overseeing the bankruptcy of the investor-owned power producer ruled on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: A vineyard burns overnight during a wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in Thousand Oaks, California, U.S. November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Creditors, which include wildfire victims, are fighting for funds as PG&E navigates bankruptcy stemming from the blazes and as the state plans for increasingly long and dangerous fire seasons its officials attribute to climate change.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali at a hearing approved a motion by PG&E seeking permission to establish the fund for people who lost homes in the fires and were uninsured or have used up or will exhaust their insurance.

San Francisco-headquartered PG&E sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January in the face of liabilities it estimated at over $30 billion in the aftermath of November’s Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern times.

The Camp Fire killed more than 85 people and destroyed more than 14,600 houses, mobile homes and other housing units, according to California’s Department of Finance.

More than 11,000 of those housing units were lost in the town Paradise, which the Camp Fire leveled.

State fire investigators earlier this month formally determined PG&E’s power lines caused the Camp Fire, the world’s most expensive natural disaster of 2018 with overall losses of $16.5 billion, according to reinsurance company Munich Re.

Montali said at Wednesday’s hearing he wants to see PG&E’s proposed fund up and running as quickly as possible and urged the company and committees for its unsecured creditors and wildfire victims to try to agree on a fund administrator in five days.

“I’ll make sure the process moves forward quickly,” Montali said, adding he would appoint an administrator if PG&E and the committees could not agree on one.

The administrator will develop eligibility requirements and make payments to wildfire victims, PG&E has said in court papers.

According to PG&E, the $105 million for its fund will come from its available cash. The company’s shares were up 3.6% at $19.12 late on Wednesday afternoon.

Lawyers for the wildfire victims had urged a fund of at least $250 million, but Montali said he could only approve or deny PG&E’s motion for its proposed fund.

Montali also approved extensions to PG&E’s so-called exclusive periods in which it is the sole party in its bankruptcy entitled to file a reorganization plan and to seek support for it from stakeholders.

Montali approved four-month extensions urged by PG&E’s unsecured creditors committee instead of the six months the company wanted.

PG&E now has until Sept. 29 to file a plan and until Nov. 29 to round up support for it.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s office had argued extensions should be capped at 75 days to push PG&E to quickly settle wildfire claims and craft a reorganization plan seeking sacrifices from its investors instead of ratepayers.

The committee for wildfire victims had objected to any extensions, arguing PG&E has been stalling for time.

PG&E said the stability of its business would be undermined without more time, adding it needed extensions to determine liabilities it faces from wildfires.

The company also said it needed more time to see if it obtains regulatory and legislative relief from state officials.

They are considering changes to California’s strict liability standard for utilities, which are held accountable for damages caused by their equipment even if negligence was not involved.

Reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco; Editing by Peter Henderson and Matthew Lewis

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University applications could be after A-levels

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Universities are considering whether to shift the timetable of the admissions system so that applications would take place after students have their A-level results.

A review into the admissions process has been launched by Universities UK.

It will examine whether it would be fairer to move away from a system based on predicted exam grades.

Paul Cottrell, head of the UCU lecturers’ union, said an “overhaul of university admissions is long overdue”.

The review, to be chaired by Paddy Nixon, vice-chancellor of Ulster University, says it will “draw on best practice from across the UK”.

But universities in Scotland have run their own review of admissions, with an emphasis on ensuring access for applicants from deprived areas.

Fairer choices

Universities have been under pressure over entry systems – with criticism over the increasing use of unconditional offers, in which students commit to a university place in return for being accepted regardless of their exam results.

Unconditional offers give universities more certainty over their recruitment numbers and finances – but there are concerns this is achieved at the cost of “pressure-selling” tactics on students.

There have also been challenges over whether disadvantaged students have fair access into the most selective universities.

The review, due to report back next spring, will look again at the findings of an inquiry carried out under the Labour government, which called for applications to be made after A-level results – changing to what is called “post-qualification admissions”.

At present, students apply and narrow down their selections before they take their A-levels – and universities make offers using the grades predicted by their schools.

But most predicted grades are incorrect and there have been arguments that students would make better informed choices and rely less on guesswork if they could apply after they knew their results.

There have also been social-mobility arguments that under the current system some disadvantaged youngsters might not even apply to universities their subsequent results might have allowed them to enter.

The Sutton Trust education charity has called for an end to the use of predicted grades, with figures showing almost three-quarters of students did not achieve the grades they had been predicted.

‘Remove barriers’

This change to a post-results system has been proposed before but a stumbling block has been whether this would mean an earlier start for school exams or a delayed start for beginning university.

The Ucas admissions system allows for some changes after results, in the “clearing” and “adjustment” processes, but there have been calls for a more comprehensive restructuring of admissions.

“There is growing support for a shift to a post-qualification admissions system,” said Mr Cottrell, acting leader of the UCU lecturers’ union.

“Our research shows such a move would not only be fairer for students, it would bring the UK into line with the rest of the world and eliminate the use of controversial unconditional offers and the chaotic clearing process,” he said.

The chief executive of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis, said the review would help “to build greater levels of transparency, trust and public understanding in admissions practices”.

The higher education watchdog, the Office for Students, is to launch its own review of admissions in England later this year.

Chief executive Nicola Dandridge said the aim would be to “remove barriers to disadvantaged applicants, and to promote transparency and clarity about admissions and offer-making processes”.

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Broken promises: Houses are cracking over old coal mine where diggers risk their lives for cash

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Residents of Blaauwbosch village in Newcastle, who live near an old coal mine where informal mining takes place, say they are fed up with empty promises by the government and local politicians. They told GroundUp they want to be moved elsewhere.

The residents say the walls of their houses are cracking because of the informal – and illegal – mining activity. Over 50 households are affected.

Mzamo High School, which was near the mine, was relocated by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education at a cost of R37m, and reopened in February 2017. Residents say they have been left behind.

“Many promises have been made to us, and we are now fed up,” said resident Msi Mavuso. “We are still living under dangerous conditions. Our houses are so cracked, they can fall in at any moment.

“For years, we have been promised by the local authorities that we would be moved to a safe place, but nothing has been done,” he said.

“Some have managed to move to other safe places and rebuild their homes, but not all of us can afford that because most of us are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet in this village,” said Mavuso.

As far as GroundUp can tell, people in the area discovered the coal in the 1980s and digging has been taking place at this site since then. But we cannot confirm this.


“Illegal coal diggers risk their lives everyday for coal digging”


Elderly resident Vusi Manana said: “Illegal coal diggers risk their lives everyday for coal digging to eke out a living because of a high rate of unemployment in this area. No one will stop them; even the government departments have failed. They won’t stop digging. What we are asking for as residents… is to be moved to a safe place.

“In every election campaign, the politicians come here and make promises to us that we would be moved from this area, but after elections they never come back. They did the same even in this year’s election campaigns.”

Kaizer Mbuli, one of hundreds of informal coal diggers, said: “I have been doing this since I was a young boy. We know that what we are doing is illegal, but we have no choice. This is our livelihood. We support our families.” He has two children.

The informal miners also dig up different types of soil, mix them together and make bricks. They dig the coal in order to bake the bricks.

Nothando Dub, spokesperson for Sisonke Environmental Justice Network, a community organisation based in Newcastle, said that it had “inspected the living conditions of the residents of Blaauwbosch living near the coal mine” and taken the matter up with the Department of Mineral Resources.

Ward 18 councillor Dolly Mnguni said that a housing project would start later this year and that there were plans to move the residents who were living near the coal mine.

The Department of Mineral Resources said that it had inspected the site and intended to rehabilitate it, but that officials from the department had been prevented from entering the area.

“The department will continue to try and gain access to the area and work with the provincial government to find sustainable solutions for the affected households.”

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Rustenburg holds public city manager interviews – SABC News

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Rustenburg Local Municipality in the North West is holding public interviews for a municipal manager in efforts to turn the city around.

The municipality has one of the biggest budgets of all the municipalities in the province. It also contributes at least 21% to the GDP of the province from a host of mining and industrial activities.

However, its success has been clouded by allegations of mismanagement and rampant corruption.

The previous municipal manager, whose office was raided by the Hawks for alleged tender corruption, resigned in May, after merely two years in office.

The public participation interview initiative is aimed at starting on a clean slate to foster transparency.

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