PG&E Allegedly Knew About Issues with Camp Fire Transmission Line

Mar. 21, 2019

New reports indicate Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) received warnings about the transmission line that may have started 2018’s devastating Camp Fire but failed to do anything to repair that line.

NBC analyzed internal documents from PG&E that indicate a warning from as early as 2014 suggested the Caribou-Palermo power lines were at a high risk of failure, but the utility dismissed the risk of a PG&E wildfire and let temporary wooden poles remain in place for two years.

The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive in California history, killing more than 80 people and destroying approximately 14,000 homes.

Utility Was Warned about Temporary Wooden Poles Before PG&E Fire

According to NBC Bay Area, in 2014 PG&G conducted a risk assessment along the Caribou-Palermo line. Carlos Gonzalez, a PG&E employee, said in the email that “the likelihood of failed structures happening is high.”

He further noted, however, that any structural failure would likely be in heavy rain, which would eliminate the risk of a wildfire. Additionally, because the line ran through a remote area with approximately 1,000 customers, PG&E did not see any failure as causing a public safety issue.

PG&E has said that the email in question concerned five temporary wooden poles, rather than being about old towers that still existed on the century-old line. Those temporary poles were initially installed when five steel towers fell at one time in a massive failure in 2012.

In 2016, the wooden poles were finally replaced, but another PG&E document shows there was corrosion on a tower on the line that caused a hook to snap while work was being done. Rather than inspecting the towers, PG&E warned crews to be careful before applying force on the towers. It is possible that a failure of a similar hook started the Camp Fire.

Critics say any risk of failure should have resulted in the utility taking action, rather than sitting on the information, especially given the previous failure of five towers at once. The fact that Tower 27/222—the one believed to have triggered the Camp Fire—was apparently 25 years past its useful life by PG&E’s guidelines but had not been replaced gives even greater cause for concern.

In comparison, San Diego Gas & Electric has updated its system to include numerous weather stations and satellite technology, with the goal of reducing the risk of fire.

The utility took those moves after it was linked to a 2007 wildfire. PG&E seems content to have simply let its equipment “run to failure,” a term that describes not replacing equipment until it fails as a way of keeping costs down.

“They have simply been caught red-handed over and over again, lying, manipulating or misleading the public,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom. “They cannot be trusted.”

PG&E Linked to Most Destructive Fires in Recent Years

The New York Times reports that PG&E’s electrical network has been linked to five of the 10 most destructive California wildfires since 2015. In at least some of the alleged PG&E California wildfires, officials have ruled that the company either outright broke state law or at least could have been more proactive in ensuring its equipment was safe.

That list does not include the 2010 explosion of a PG&E gas pipeline that killed eight people and resulted in the utility facing criminal sanctions and probation. Court depositions following the explosions included testimony from employees who said their concerns about old equipment were ignored, leading California’s Public Utilities Commission to determine that the utility put profits above safety.

PG&E Facing California Wildfire Lawsuits

Despite filing for bankruptcy protection, PG&E still faces hundreds of California wildfire lawsuits, filed by victims of the 2017 and 2018 fires. They allege the utility knew about the risk of devastating fires but did not take adequate steps to prevent the wildfires. In addition to the PG&E lawsuits, the utility also faces additional sanctions linked to its probation from the San Bruno pipeline explosion as US District Judge William Alsup considers what measures to enact against the utility for possible probation violations.

Among the possible sanctions are stricter federal oversight, random inspections of vegetation maintenance along the utility’s lines, and restrictions on shareholder dividend payments.

“The record demonstrates that PG&E’s performance with respect to vegetation management has been dismal,” Alsup noted in an order. A hearing into the matter is set for April 2.

California Wildfire Attorneys

If you were affected by the California wildfires, contact an attorney at Cutter Law today to discuss your situation. Our highly experienced wildfire lawyers in Sacramento and Oakland are available to answer your questions and guide you through the process.

We don’t back down against large companies and are committed to ensuring those responsible for the destructive fires are held accountable for their actions.

Personal injury and civil justice attorney Brooks Cutter is a leading advocate for consumer justice and protecting the rights of the severely injured. Brooks founded Cutter Law, P.C., with offices in Sacramento and Oakland, with…
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