Stakeholders Mediate, SDG&E Stalls?

Today's business page of our distinguished daily paper described the frustration earlier on Friday of county stakeholders trying to reach common ground with the San Diego Gas & Electric Company representative in federal mediation. SDG&E sought the mediation after its bid to cut power preemptively to customers during high dry winds was denied by state utility commissioners.

Onell Soto reported this quote from Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who said, “We've spent eight hours, and the results so far are two problem statements. I'm hopeful the [mediation] process will build some steam and we'll get to what most of us came to talk about, and that's the bottom line: What can SDG&E do to prevent fires from their equipment?”

Actually, the answer is obvious and not too difficult to comprehend: PUT THE POWER LINES UNDERGROUND.

The problem is not in finding the answer. The problem is not finding people in San Diego County who know the answer. The problem is getting the “Sempra Entities” to do the right thing, every day.

Unfortunately, if the California Public Utilities Commission can't force the San Diego electricity franchise holder to do the right thing eventally, it may suddenly become much harder for local officials to see federal reimbursement for emergency expenses if there should be another wildfire complex caused by “their equipment.”

Testimony to CPUC on 2007 Witch Fire

John Hotta testified to CPUC in June 2009 about his involvement at the origin of the Witch Fire. Hotta testified that he is the construction supervisor in SDG&E's transmission construction and maintenance department who was the utility's first responder at Pole Z416675.

While he was surveying the initial fire damage, Hotta testified that three men in a pickup truck drove up. Before they drove on, one of the men claimed to be the property owner who heard “a loud explosion in the area” before the men noticed the fire starting in the vicinity of the power line.

Hotta testified that he found no downed power lines in the area. Hotta also testified that in the high wind conditions, he saw adjacent power lines come close together without touching at or around Pole Z416675 after inspecting the power line as far as Pole Z416670 until it was too dark in the evening to go further.

Testimony to CPUC regarding Rice Fire Investigation Interference

Michael Daleo testified to CPUC in June 2009 that he was called by an CPUC or CPSD investigator regarding the “pre-inspection” of Tree FF1090 suspected of falling on power lines and causing the Rice Fire. Daleo is not an attorney but is the System Forester in SDG&E's Vegetation Management Program (see SDG&E Computer Model Failed to Predict 2007 Rice Wildfire on how SDG&E VMP's automated tree inventory system was warned about Tree FF1090 trimming needed in “0-3 months” but VMP failed to react because it didn't get a follow-up memo).

Instead of cooperating with the investigator, Daleo “very cordially asked the individual to contact the legal department for the requested information. After receiving that call, I called Jack McCabe, who I knew to be a manager at Davey Resource Group, to let him know that somebody from the CPSD might be contacting Davey Resource Group for information. I also recall informing Jack that we had been advised that requests from the CPSD to SDG&E should go through SDG&E’s legal department and that he might want to consult with Davey Resource Group’s legal department regarding requests from the CPSD. I passed along our in-house counsel’s name and telephone number in case Davey Resource Group’s legal department had any questions. At no point during my brief conversation with Jack did I state or otherwise suggest that Jack or anyone at Davey Resource Group should not cooperate with the CPSD.
Q: Did you tell Jack McCabe that CPSD investigator Steve Intably might say something that was not true in order to get information?
A: No. I do not recall saying anything like that, and I was not even familiar with Steve Intably at that time.
Q: About how long was your telephone conversation with Jack McCabe that day?
A: I would estimate that the conversation lasted about five minutes or so.
Q: Did you have any other conversations with Jack McCabe regarding the CPSD investigation?
A: No.
Q: Did you ever tell Jack McCabe that Davey should not speak with CPSD investigator Steve Intably?
A: No.
Q: Did you ever tell Jack McCabe that Davey should limit the amount of information to be provided to the CPSD or in any way withhold information from the CPSD?
A: No.
Q: Did you ever tell Jack McCabe that Davey should not cooperate with the CPSD?
A: No.”

Federal Reimbursement of Local Disaster Expenses

Under the National Response Framework for handling a disaster complex of national importance, local resources are mobilized until there are none left to mobilize, then state and federal resources are tasked with assisting and relieving the exhausted local first responders.

Response is only part of the cycle of disaster preparedness. Before the response takes place, there are emergency plans to be made and at least some mitigation of risks by addressing hazards in the community before they become active disasters. After the response is over, there is the expense of recovery. This expense becomes more manageable when the local community is eligible for federal disaster assistance and reimbursement for local response costs.

Federal disaster expense reimbursement is not available to communities that do not adhere to the standards for the National Incident Management System and Incident Command System (NIMS/ICS). Recently, several cleanup firms working after the 2007 wildfires were cited for not adhering to NIMS/ICS standards by failing to properly document costs and work done, leaving the City of San Diego on the hook for costs not reimbursed by FEMA.

So what happens to San Diego when there is another set of wildfires that have not been mitigated by putting SDG&E power lines underground?

According to SDG&E's Debra Reed and other investor-owned utilities in their 2009 application to CPUC for Wildfire Expense Balancing Accounts (WEBA), wildfires are a natural part of doing business as electricity providers. No WEBA testimony was provided on the advantages of putting power lines underground.

The WEBA application seeks wildfire cost reimbursement from ratepayers without apparent limit. WEBA will also be a collector of wildfire-related legal expenses, also to be eventually paid by ratepayers. There is no WEBA application distinction for those wildfire legal costs stemming from power company violations of applicable laws or regulations.

According to Section 2102 of the California Public Utilities Code, the CPUC shall have its attorney sue in Superior Court against any public utility that violates laws enforced in the state of California, for the purpose of collecting all fines and penalties resulting from the utility violations of law.

Since those fines are payed by law to the General Fund and this state is in a continuing fiscal crisis, the CPUC attorney ought to get busy. Otherwise, parents of school-age children can complain to the CPUC attorney about there being no state funds to keep class sizes small.

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