A compelling report on the cause of California's deadliest forest fire represents a huge setback for Pacific Gas & Electric, which is trying to resolve a complex bankruptcy and prove to its customers and elected officials that it takes safety seriously.
PG&E has repeatedly failed to properly maintain a power line built nearly a century ago, despite traversing a mountainous, heavily wooded area experiencing strong winds, a 700-page report from the California Utilities Commission concluded. A live wire broke the line, called Caribou-Palermo, in November 2018 and lit a fire that killed 85 people and destroyed the city of Paradise.
The report, which the commission published on its website during the unannounced Thanksgiving holiday, could jeopardize PG&E's future as an independent business. The company was already on probation after being convicted on six federal criminal charges for causing another disaster – a pipeline blast that killed eight people in San Bruno, southern San Francisco, in 2010.
Critics of the company, including a group of California mayors and Governor Gavin Newsom, proposed to sell PG&E to Warren E. Buffett's holding company, separate it, make the state take control or turn it into a privately owned cooperative. your customers.
"The most telling new information is that it was based on negligent and improper inspections and PG&E's general failure to manage its transmission line," said state senator Jerry Hill, a Bay Area Democrat. "That's exactly what we learned 10 years ago from the explosion of the San Bruno gas pipeline."
The report also raised new questions about why the utility commission did not identify PG&E security holes in previous company investigations and audits. The report did not address this issue, but implied that the problems could have been discovered years earlier. He said that "long-term exposure to higher winds, age and historical inspection methodologies probably contributed" to the equipment failures that caused the fire.
Commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the agency will now set fines and fines and "will ensure it incorporates broader lessons learned in future work, especially as we work to implement fire law."
Michael Aguirre, a former assistant US attorney who sued the governor and several state officials, claiming they unduly compromised taxpayers to help companies like PG&E, said the company “did not follow basic safety rules because enforcement failed. . in California at least in the last decade. "
"Unless something fundamental is done," he added, "the utility will cause more home deaths and destruction by 2020."
The commission's findings may undermine the parole the company was placed on after the 2010 pipeline explosion.
Federal District Court Judge William H. Alsup ruled this year that PG&E had violated probation by claiming that the company had not adequately informed federal supervisors of a fire-related investigation by a state attorney. Judge Alsup threatened to force PG&E to undertake a comprehensive and costly overhaul of its power lines, but eventually lessened its demands.
The judge could now review this decision in light of the new report. PG&E acknowledged that this could violate its parole if the "reckless operation or maintenance" of its power lines was responsible for a fire and if the company violated federal, state or local laws.
A PG&E spokesman said the company accepted the commission's conclusion that its equipment had caused the camp fire. The utility said it has since stepped up security efforts, among other things, by inspecting nearly 730,000 transmission, distribution and substation structures and more than 25 million electrical components.
"We deeply regret the role our equipment played in this tragedy and apologize to everyone affected by the devastating campfire," said Paul Doherty, spokesman for PG&E.
PG&E has been under increasing scrutiny since 2017, when its equipment was involved in several devastating fires in northern California.
The dealership filed for bankruptcy in January, after racking up tens of billions of dollars in damage from fire damage to its equipment started in 2017 and 2018. This year, the dealership angered customers after cutting back on energy of millions of Californians to prevent further fires.
Some customers have lost power without warning. At one point, the utility's computer systems failed several times as government officials and customers sought information about blackouts, called public safety shutdowns.
The commission report provides even more evidence for many critics of the company who have long complained about its security record.
The investigators identified the Caribou-Palermo 27/222 transmission tower as the main culprit in the bonfire. The tower has spent 25 years of its "life" by PG&E standards.
Investigators cited PG&E for a dozen violations of a more than 100-year mandate that California utilities inspect, repair and maintain their equipment.
On November 8, 2018, winds blew in the area around Palermo Substation, near Oroville Dam, north of Sacramento. The winds hit 48 kilometers per hour and the equipment, known as the C-hook, helps to hold the transmission tower's power lines.
If PG&E inspectors climbed tower 27/222, they could have seen and replaced the worn C-hook and "could have prevented the campfire from igniting," the report said. Inspectors had climbed other structures on the line in the months before the fire. But workers had not climbed 27/222 since at least 2001, according to the commission's review of PG&E records.
This lapse was particularly noteworthy as five other ancient towers on the same stretch of the Caribou-Palermo line collapsed in a December 2012 storm. Next summer, Brian Cherry, PG&E vice president of regulatory affairs, notified the state regulators that the company would replace the five fallen towers and one but not 27/222.
"PG&E failed to fully inspect the tower and C-hook to identify deterioration," the commission report said.
Utility experts find it disconcerting that PG&E has not maintained its equipment sufficiently because utilities can recoup the cost of customer repairs through higher electricity rates.
"PG&E behavior was unforgivable and totally unnecessary," said Robert McCullough, energy consultant in Portland, Oregon. And, strangely, also blind to risk to shareholders. "
The report said that in addition to violating state regulations, PG&E had violated its own procedures. The Camp Fire investigation was also referred to Butte County Prosecutor on possible criminal charges.
After the bonfire, PG&E discovered numerous problems when it took a more rigorous approach. The new inspections found 5,000 dangerous conditions on the transmission lines, "none of which were previously identified by PG&E routine patrol and detailed inspections," the report said.
Advocates from the commission's security and oversight division stated in a document that PG&E must address the violations cited in the report before regulators approve a reorganization plan in their bankruptcy case. The company is due to go bankrupt next year to explore a state forest fire fund that the California Legislature created this year to help protect large utilities from the costs of forest fires.
This year, California passed a comprehensive law aimed at reviewing its response to the fire threat. But it is unclear whether the legislation will do enough to pressure big utility companies to improve their safety cultures. The law, for example, requires PG&E and other utility companies to obtain a safety certification from the utility commission in order to withdraw money from the state forest fire fund.
This, in theory, created a way for the state to force companies to adopt stricter security standards and practices. But the state's three largest power utilities have already achieved certification with few problems. Among other things, they had to come up with a plan to prevent forest fires and set up a safety committee on their boards.