• State Regulators Want Answers to Why SCE Is Not Monitoring Effects of Pole Overloading
BY HANS LAETZ
State investigators say the wildfire that roared down Malibu Canyon into the Civic Center area in 2007, burning 14 structures in the heart of the city, was caused by collapsing substandard wooden utility poles overloaded by heavy, thick cellular telephone cables, the Malibu Surfside News has learned.
The California Public Utilities Commission has ordered the Southern California Edison electric utility and four wireless phone companies to come up with a common explanation on why aging wooden poles lifting high-voltage lines, and four subsequent sets of communications cables, failed in 50 mile-per-hour winds when they had been designed to hold up in 92-mile gusts, and had just passed Edison safety inspections.
The state findings include an opinion from Edison that it is not responsible for new weight calculations on poles it built decades ago, but that now carry significant new weight and wind loads because Edison has sold pole space to the cellular companies.
Malibu Mayor Andy Stern said that left him aghast. “If Edison is not responsible for the safety of its own poles, then who the hell is? Why are we learning this now, when there are hundreds of these poles in Malibu?”
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said, “It is absurd that Edison thinks it’s somehow discharged its duty for the safety of Edison poles, by selling capacity for new weight loads on them to the cellular companies.”
Utility company officials said they couldn’t speak on the record because of a myriad of lawsuits filed over the fire. But one said the state’s finding was preliminary and erroneously relies on a presumed 50 mph maximum wind gust based on measurements in Calabasas, nine miles away, and that winds exceeded 100 mph in the canyon that night.
But reports from the Los Angeles County Fire Department and field investigations by CPUC staff “provide us with a prima facie [presumed true] showing that violations have occurred and that the Malibu fire stems from the violations,” wrote state investigator Kan Wai Tong in a report that was adopted by unanimous vote in San Francisco Jan. 29.
“It is my opinion that the poles did not meet requirements,” he said. “If the poles had been maintained, inspected, and constructed in compliance with the applicable CPUC general orders, the poles clearly would have withstood the winds that they were subjected to on October 21, 2007.”
The state investigation said Edison and four cellular companies—Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and NextG Networks—apparently failed to coordinate weight loads with each other, or properly measure how sturdy the aging, wooden poles were as heavy new cables and cellular phone transceivers and antennas were added to them as wireless communications blossomed over the past decade.
Regulators said they are perplexed by Edison’s claim it is no longer responsible for calculating total pole weight capacity because it sold access to the poles to the four phone companies, each responsible for its additional load. In letters filed with the state, Edison claims that weight load safety assessments are up to the phone companies as they hang new equipment on old poles originally installed by the electric company, in some cases decades before wireless phones were invented.
“That is an outrageous, arrogant remark,” said Stern, after learning from a reporter that Edison doesn’t review the overall weight stress on the poles supporting 66,000-volt transmission lines feeding Malibu, or its other power lines. Stern said he only learned of the CPUC findings, and Edison opinions, when contacted by the Malibu Surfside News this week.
“I want to know how many hundreds of overloaded poles there are in Malibu, and upwind of us,” Stern said. “And I want to know why state officials have not told us about this.”
An Edison spokesperson said the matter was under litigation, and that formal comment would have to come via the company’s response to the CPUC investigation, which is due to be filed this week. Edison is a state-regulated utility owned by the shareholders of Edison International, a for-profit company that could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from this one fire alone.
The state report’s findings confirm the opinions of some Malibu residents, who had observed that the poles in question had been leaning towards the canyon road for years. Some of those people had already started a letter-writing campaign about spindly-looking, leaning power poles in a canyon notorious for hurricane-force Santa Ana winds, and occasional firestorms.
“When the utility poles broke, electrical contact with the nearby vegetation occurred and caused a fire … that burned about 3836 acres in the Malibu area, destroyed 14 structures and 36 vehicles, and damaged 19 other structures,” said Tong. Two circuits, carrying 66,000 and 16,000 volts, were seen arcing in the air and then in the brush by the first fire crew that arrived shortly after 4:30 a.m.
The force of the heavy poles and wires toppling into the road was so great that one guy wire yanked a 2600-pound concrete anchor from the surrounding rocks, landing it the middle of Malibu Canyon Road, the state report said.
Three firefighters were injured, and parts of the city evacuated, as the fire burned all around the Civic Center, taking out the clock tower at Malibu Colony Plaza, Castle Kashan, Malibu Presbyterian Church, part of Webster School and destroyed one house in Malibu Colony.
Dozens of houses in Serra Estates and above the Civic Center were saved only by a massive show of force by firefighters, as resident fled in their nightclothes. Classrooms at Webster Elementary and Our Lady of Malibu schools were burned, and schools throughout Malibu were closed for several days.
Edison’s defense apparently rests on a claim put forth by a senior safety inspector in a written response to CPUC questions last fall: that the partial sale of pole capacity means Edison is not responsible if there is too much weight on its poles. “Edison contends in its letter that Edison was not required to approve the additional load added by other parties,” Tong said in his report.
“The meaning of Edison’s contention is unclear given the joint responsibility that was borne by each and all these utilities to comply with the Commission’s general orders (on pole safety),” Tong added.
In addition, state civil laws hold that partial property owners are fully responsible for all damages under the legal theory of “joint and several liability,” meaning that each minority owner is fully responsible for the entire damage bill caused by a negligent act.
At its San Francisco vote, the commission directed the phone companies to answer a set of questions about who installed what, when this occurred, how much it weighed and just how weight and wind load calculations were carried out. The CPUC is considering new rules to specifically address Edison’s contentions that it is not responsible for weight loads added by phone companies to its poles in 50,000 square miles of service area, home to 13 million Californians in 11 counties from the ocean to Nevada.
The companies are due to answer those questions this week. Two of the wireless companies, AT&T and NextG, have already rejected many of the state’s questions as outside the purview of the Public Utilities Commission, because numerous damaged parties have filed lawsuits.
“AT&T objects to each question to the extent that it requests documents or information protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege ... and/or were prepared in anticipation of litigation,” its company lawyers said.
AT&T lawyers specifically objected to being ordered by the state regulatory commission to explain exactly what caused the disastrous fire, and countered that “there is no evidence establishing that the subject poles did not meet the safety factors” required by state law. The firm also said it needs more time to gather documentation for wires that were installed by an outside contractor 17 years ago for a cellular telephone company that has been sold four times since then, and to question fire department and CPUC investigators.
Responses from the other cell companies, and Edison, were not available at press time. But in the October report, the state said Verizon could not provide an installation date but did provide wind load analysis from more than a decade ago. Sprint told the CPUC it installed its gear in 1997 but could not find any records of weight calculations.
The last company to add equipment to the poles, NextG, installed its gear in 2004 but has no record of any weight or wind capacity calculations, the CPUC report said. NextG is a San Jose company that installs cell transmitters on poles, and links them with fiber cables for several service providers.
Charter Communications, the local cable TV provider, does not have cables in Malibu Canyon, but does have lines on hundreds of other Edison-installed poles in the area.
Stern said he would ask the city council next week to authorize an inquiry into the possibility that weight calculations have never been done for tens of thousands of utility poles in the Edison service area, many of them upwind of fire-prone Malibu. “These kinds of fires do not stop at the city limits,” he said.
He noted that Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu’s only major street, is lined with power poles heavily burdened with new communications cables. “Those things are four feet away from people’s houses, and they say ‘no one is ultimately responsible to assess the weight loads on them?’ Then you’re telling me these are time bombs waiting to go off.”