PG&E delayed repairs for years on transmission line linked to lethal Camp Fire

Repairs were planned for as early as 2013 on transmission line but were not carried out before Butte County wildfire

Fire burns near PG&E transmission towers, November 12, east Pulga. The first report of the deadly Camp Fire was made near another tower on this line. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
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PG&E had planned as far back as 2013 to replace an aging complex of transmission equipment linked to the origin area of the lethal inferno that roared though Butte County in November 2018, but has yet to initiate the upgrade, according to documents filed with state regulators.

The power facilities that weren’t repaired for years stretch through Butte, Yuba and Sutter counties in Northern California and include what’s known as the Caribou-Palermo line that carries 115 kilovolts, according to official filings with the state Public Utilities Commission.

The disclosures raise fresh questions about PG&E’s safety efforts as they relate to the company’s creaky complex of electricity lines and towers.

“PG&E keeps telling us they are now a new company and they are changing their ways. But how can we believe them?” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes parts of Santa Clara County. “They have said this numerous times before.”

In 2010, PG&E caused a fatal gas explosion that killed eight and destroyed a San Bruno neighbor that is in Sen. Hill’s district. Federal investigators determined the explosion resulted from a disastrous combination of PG&E’s flawed record keeping, shoddy maintenance and the PUC’s lazy and ineffective oversight of PG&E.

“PG&E proposes to replace six consecutive lattice-steel towers with new towers on the Caribou-Palermo power line,” former PG&E regulatory executive Brian Cherry wrote in a July 2013 advice letter to the state PUC.

The towers had been knocked over in a winter storm.

“Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in the fall of 2013, or as soon as possible thereafter, with completion in winter of 2013, or as soon as possible after construction begins,” according to the advice letter.

In 2016, PG&E again indicated that wide-ranging repairs were needed on the same Caribou-Palermo 115 kilo-volt transmission line, along with several other power lines in Northern California.

“The purpose of this project is to replace aging facilities, address overloads and improve the reliability of electric service to customers in Butte, Yuba, and Sutter Counties,” PG&E stated in an April 2016 filing with the state PUC. The time frame for those repairs on the same line wasn’t disclosed.

The complex of lines stretches 59.5 miles, according to the documents.

PUC documents showed that energy officials had been warning about the fast-aging line for the better part of a decade.

“In 2010 and again in 2015, the California Independent System Operator transmission plan identified the need to improve and upgrade this system to address potential overloads and power outages that would affect customers in the service area,” according to a May 2017 PUC filing and the improvements that were again proposed for the same line.

In December, PG&E revealed that it had suffered equipment failures on the Caribou-Palermo line near the origin point of the lethal Butte County inferno, also known as the Camp Fire.

PG&E sought bankruptcy protection from its creditors on Jan. 29, listing $51.7 billion in debts, because it faced a forbidding mountain of debts and wildfire-related liabilities that arose from the lethal infernos that torched Northern California in 2017 and 2018. A bankruptcy judge held hearings on Wednesday regarding the case, but key issues under contention were deferred until March.

“They had failed record keeping with San Bruno, and now with their electrical system, it appears to be more of the same for PG&E,” Sen. Hill said. “One of the questions is, if PG&E was given money to carry out these repairs, why didn’t they spend it? Or did they divert the money to something else?”

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