Report: PG&E Knew High-Voltage Lines Posed Fire Danger, But Put Off Repairs

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PG&E transmission towers on the Caribou-Palermo line are seen against a smoky landscape adjacent to the Feather River in Butte County last November. The towers are close to the spot where officials say the Camp Fire began. (Josh Edelson/AFP-Getty Images)

Updated 3:10 p.m. Wednesday

PG&E has known for years that many of its high-voltage power lines posed a wildfire threat but has repeatedly delayed action to fix them, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

The Journal's disclosures prompted a federal judge overseeing PG&E's probation for a 2016 pipeline safety conviction to order the company to produce a paragraph-by-paragraph response to the story.

Among the transmission facilities that PG&E told federal agencies needed work was the 115-kilovolt Caribou-Palermo transmission line, which suffered an equipment failure during red-flag fire conditions last Nov. 8 and touched off the deadliest wildfire in California history.

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A WSJ investigation based in part on PG&E documents obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act found that the utility told the U.S. Forest Service in 2017 and 2018 that 49 towers on the nearly century-old Caribou-Palermo line needed to be replaced "due to age." Another 57 towers needed extensive upgrades.

The Journal reported earlier this year that PG&E had delayed repairs on the Caribou-Palermo line since 2013.

State investigators have traced the origin of last November's Camp Fire to a Caribou-Palermo transmission tower along the Feather River in Butte County. The fire destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and killed 85 people in the town of Paradise and nearby communities.

Other company documents, which the Journal described as part of a regulatory dispute over the utility's spending on its power infrastructure, outlined concerns over the age of many of the company's transmission lines.

A presentation prepared by PG&E in 2017 estimated that the average age of its 50,000 transmission towers was 68 years old. The oldest towers in the network were 108 years old at the time, meaning they were built before 1910. The age estimate excluded 7,000 towers for which no date of construction could be determined.

The Caribou-Palermo transmission line was among PG&E's oldest, having gone into service in 1921. The utility announced last month that the line, which was shut down last December after having been briefly re-energized after the Camp Fire, has been permanently retired from service.

Among the other transmission lines on which PG&E has delayed work is one in the North Bay, the Ignacio-Mare Island 115-kilovolt line, also built in 1921. That line, which stretches from Vallejo to Novato, has been scheduled for work to raise sagging power conductors since 2015, the Journal reported, and the project is now scheduled for next year.

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The Journal quotes the 2017 PG&E presentation as saying the company needed a plan to replace towers and better manage lines to prevent “structure failure resulting [in] conductor on ground causing fire.”

Hours after the Journal article appeared, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, overseeing the company's criminal probation in a case stemming from the 2010 San Bruno pipeline disaster, ordered the company to respond.

"The offender (PG&E) must provide a fresh, forthright statement owning up to the true extent of the Wall Street Journal report," Alsup wrote. "The offender’s response shall be up to 40 double-spaced pages."

Alsup also asked the company to explain recent political donations and why it paid $5 billion in dividends in recent years "at a time when PG&E was aware of the problems named in the Wall Street Journal report."

Following the Camp Fire catastrophe -- and under pressure from Judge Alsup, legislators, regulators and investors -- PG&E launched a sweeping inspection campaign for its entire power distribution network.

In a statement Wednesday, PG&E said that it didn't "agree with or support the Journal's findings."

It added that "the devastation of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires made clear that we must do more to combat the threat of wildfires and extreme weather while hardening our systems. As we have disclosed publicly, we are taking significant actions to inspect, identify, and fix these issues with our electric system as part of our expanded Community Wildfire Safety Program. While the number of safety issues we have identified on our electric system is small by percentage, it’s unacceptable."

The company said last month it had completed visual or aerial inspections of 49,000 of its 50,000 transmission structures. The inspections identified the need for 53,000 "corrective actions." Some 100 of the issues were deemed "highest priority" and have been repaired, the utility said.

PG&E's inspection and repair program is part of a wildfire mitigation plan it was required to undertake by SB 901, a law enacted after the disastrous 2017 fire season but before the Camp Fire.

PG&E's role in the 2017 and 2018 fires prompted it to declare bankruptcy earlier this year in order to deal with what the company estimated was at least $30 billion in wildfire-related legal liabilities.

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