State Probe Says PG&E Missed Deadly Flaw on Line That Sparked Camp Fire

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Transmission towers on PG&E's Caribou-Palermo line are seen adjacent to the Feather River in Butte County, near the spot where the Camp Fire began. In February, PG&E said it's "probable" that its equipment caused the blaze, the deadliest and most destructive in modern California history. Cal Fire investigators later confirmed that to be the case.  (Josh Edelson/AFP-Getty Images)

State public utilities investigators say that PG&E overlooked critical maintenance problems on the high-voltage power line that sparked last year's devastating Camp Fire in Butte County — a failure they trace to years of inadequate inspections and maintenance of the line.

The newly released report from the California Public Utilities Commission's Safety and Enforcement Division said PG&E's lapses included a long-term failure to perform a close-up inspection of the transmission tower where the fire began — despite indications of possible problems there.

A Cal Fire investigation found that a "C-hook" connector on the nearly century-old tower snapped the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, allowing an electrified cable to swing against the steel structure. The resulting arc provided the spark that touched off the blaze, which killed 85 people in and around the town of Paradise and incinerated nearly 14,000 homes.

Investigators found that the broken C-hook was badly worn before it broke, an issue that escaped PG&E's attention during routine ground-based inspections of its Caribou-Palermo 115-kilovolt line along the Feather River.

The CPUC's report said equipment problems on the tower were reported as early as 2009 and that under PG&E's own policies, those issues should have prompted a "detailed climbing inspection" of the structure.

But the Safety and Enforcement Division said it found no record that PG&E had conducted such an inspection on the tower since at least 2001.

"This omission is a violation of PG&E's own policy requiring climbing inspection on towers where recurring problems exist," the report said. "SED notes that a climbing inspection of the incident tower during that time could have identified the worn C-hook before it failed, and that its timely replacement could have prevented ignition of the Camp Fire."

The report also notes that PG&E's own inspections after the Camp Fire detected numerous other equipment deficiencies on the Caribou-Palermo line.

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The Safety and Enforcement Division pointed to that as evidence of poor inspection practices before the fires and as a sign of a more systematic problem with PG&E's inspection and maintenance procedures.

"SED's investigation of the Camp Fire found that the identified shortcomings in PG&E's inspection and maintenance of the incident tower were not isolated, but rather indicative of an overall pattern of inadequate inspection and maintenance of PG&E's transmission facilities," the report said.

The 31-page document was made public last week as part of a Safety and Enforcement Division motion to include the Camp Fire in an ongoing commission investigation into PG&E's role in sparking a string of catastrophic wildfires.

The CPUC launched the probe, focused on the Northern California wildfires of October 2017, earlier this year. The company could face fines and other penalties if the CPUC determines that it violated commission rules or state law in the way it operated, inspected and maintained its lines.

The new SED report alleges 12 such violations in connection with the Camp Fire, most of which focus on faulty inspections, maintenance and record-keeping associated with the Caribou-Palermo transmission line.

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One of the alleged violations is more general, charging PG&E "failed to maintain an effective inspection and maintenance program to identify and correct hazardous conditions on its transmission lines in order to furnish and maintain service, as are necessary to promote the safety and health of its patrons and the public."

Steven Weissman, a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy and a former CPUC administrative law judge, said the SED's findings "raise very serious questions" about the condition of PG&E's other transmission lines.

"The combination of factors they (SED) describe related to that one line, that one tower, that one C-hook suggest a pattern of neglect," Weissman said. "When you see that, there's no reason to assume that it's an isolated situation."

The SED's finding about PG&E's inspection process is "definitely a red flag, a reason to suspect there may be problems elsewhere," Weissman said.

In a statement, PG&E said it accepted the conclusion that its transmission lines "were a cause of the Camp Fire" and reiterated an apology to those affected by the disaster. The statement did not address the underlying allegations that shoddy inspections led to the equipment failure that triggered the disaster.

The company also noted that in the wake of the Camp Fire tragedy, it has undertaken a systemwide inspection of its transmission and distribution facilities.

"Throughout the inspection process, we have addressed and repaired conditions that pose an immediate safety risk, while completing other high-priority repairs on an accelerated basis," the company statement said. "Repairs for other conditions will be completed as part of our routine work execution plan."