PG&E planned in 2013 to fix power line that may have started Camp Fire

Dan Noyes Image
Thursday, February 28, 2019
PG&E planned in 2013 to fix power line that may have started Camp Fire
The utility delayed safety work on a transmission line for years, and that line is now the prime suspect in starting November's deadly Camp Fire.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A stunning headline coming out of PG&E's filings with state and federal regulators. The utility delayed safety work on a transmission line for years, and that line is now the prime suspect in starting November's deadly Camp Fire.

Consumer advocates and lawyers for wildfire victims say PG&E was more interested in their bottom line than making safety improvements.

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In a July 2013 letter, PG&E tells the Public Utilities Commission that it intends "to replace six consecutive lattice-steel towers with new towers on the Caribou-Palermo 115 Kilovolt (kV) Power Line" that were damaged by a winter storm.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that those improvements were delayed year after year, and never done.

That is the same transmission line now being investigated as the cause of November's Camp Fire in Butte County that killed 86 people and destroyed 14,000 homes.

Mark Toney, a consumer advocate with The Utility Reform Network, told the I-Team, "They promised to fix it in 2013, they promised to fix it in 2014 and 2015 and 2016, it is not fixed today and that is the line that failed before the fire."

On November 8th of last year, a PG&E worker reported seeing a fire starting under the Caribou-Palermo line near Paradise. Cal Fire told me today the cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, but "if a violation of state law is determined, the investigation report will go directly to the local DA."

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Wildfire victims' attorneys say it's a pattern -- that PG&E raises money for such repairs and then delays the maintenance, to make their bottom line look better.

"Well, look, this is the way that PG&E does business," said Fire Victims Lawyer Mike Danko. "And this is the way they've done business at least since the mid-'90s."

The Public Utilities Commission told the I-Team today they are looking at the "root cause of the incident, including historic maintenance and expenditures" and that PG&E "is subject to fines of up to $100,000 per violation per day" if it's found to have violated state law.

Mark Toney said, "They were more concerned about financial performance then they were about safety and fixing things that they admitted themselves needed to be fixed."

As part of their wildfire mitigation plan filed three weeks ago, PG&E says they've launched a wildfire safety inspection plan for transmission towers in high fire threat districts, looking for what they call "failure mechanisms" using ground inspections, drones and helicopters. They expect those inspections to be done by May.

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Also today, the bankruptcy hearings chugged along. PG&E confirmed in court that they will not be paying $130 million of bonuses to 14,000 employees after all. The public outrage was too much.


"The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility. We disagree with the overall premise of the Wall Street Journal article. It inaccurately portrays planned electric transmission regulatory compliance work, and omits key aspects of the work we are currently doing to enhance safety. It is important for our customers to know that we are taking action now on important safety and maintenance measures identified through our accelerated and enhanced safety inspections and will continue to keep our regulators, customers and investors informed of our efforts."

Additional information about the inaccuracies we (PG&E) identified in the Wall Street Journal story is here:

Historical NERC Transmission Work

  • The article describes work planned by PG&E in response to a North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) Alert as transmission line maintenance work, which inaccurately describes the work that was proposed. More specifically, the planned NERC Alert work on the Caribou-Palermo transmission line was not maintenance-related (i.e., work relating to identifying and fixing broken or worn parts), it was focused on addressing the vertical clearances of certain power line spans, such as conductor-to-conductor clearance or conductor-to-ground clearance. It is also important to point out that the specific tower on that line that is the focus of the Camp Fire investigation, and which was discussed in our Electric Incident Reports, was not slated for work under this program, as it was determined to not have a vertical ground-to-conductor clearance issue.
  • The WSJ story further describes PG&E's planned NERC Alert work on the Caribou-Palermo line as necessary because conductors "were too close to vegetation", which is also inaccurate. The work was focused on addressing vertical clearance issues, such as conductor-to-ground, conductor-to-structure, or conductor-to-conductor. NERC regulates vegetation management, but that was not the subject of this planned work.
  • The WSJ story omitted that as part of its multi-year program to address the NERC Alert across 13,000 circuit miles of high voltage transmission lines, PG&E has made significant progress and completed work on addressing more than 9,800 discrepancies out of the approximately 11,500 identified for work as part of that program (approximately 85%) along hundreds of circuits, at a cost of over $700 million. By the time PG&E expects to complete the remaining NERC work in 2022, the total cost is projected to be over $1 billion.
  • The timing for the NERC Alert work on the Caribou-Palermo line was previously anticipated to be completed in 2016. The timing for work on that line was extended primarily due to additional operational and engineering work.

Enhanced Safety Inspections

  • Our customers also should know that enhanced electric transmission and distribution inspections to help further enhance public safety are well underway. Specifically, PG&E is inspecting its electrical equipment in areas at elevated and extreme wildfire risk.
  • Since December 2018, PG&E has been conducting enhanced and accelerated safety inspections of electric infrastructure in areas of higher wildfire risk. PG&E has completed more than two-thirds of the enhanced transmission inspections (including ground and climbing visual inspections, as well as the use of drone technology) of its 5,500 miles of transmission lines and approximately 50,000 transmission structures, including towers and poles, in high fire-threat areas. The company is taking action right away to address any issues that pose an immediate risk to public safety, in advance of this year's wildfire season. The company expects to complete the remaining inspections of its electric transmission lines by the end of March 2019 pending any weather or access constraints. Similar inspections of approximately 685,000 distribution poles began in February 2019 and these inspections are expected to be complete by the end of May 2019, pending any weather or access constraints.
  • The 56-mile Caribou-Palermo electric transmission line has been de-energized since December 2018. Preliminary results from the enhanced inspections on this transmission line have identified some equipment conditions that require repair or replacement. As a result, this entire transmission line will remain out of service until it is verified to be fully safe or decommissioned. The 115kV circuit runs from PG&E's Caribou Powerhouse in Plumas County to PG&E's Palermo Substation in Butte County.

Working Together to Combat Extreme Weather and Wildfires

  • The devastating 2017 and 2018 Northern California wildfires have made it clear that more must be done to adapt to and address the increasing threat of wildfires and extreme weather in order to keep our customers and communities safe. We are taking action now on important safety and maintenance measures identified through our accelerated and enhanced safety inspections and will continue to keep our regulators, customers and investors informed of our efforts
  • This enhanced inspection work is being performed as part of the company's Community Wildfire Safety Program, implemented following the 2017 Northern California wildfires as additional precautionary measures intended to further reduce wildfire risk. The accelerated inspection program is in addition to routine inspections and maintenance programs already performed in accordance with state and federal regulatory requirements. Considering the growing threat of extreme weather and wildfires, PG&E has enhanced the criteria used for inspections using a risk-based approach to identify components on electric towers and poles that have the potential to initiate fires.

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