By Miriam Raftery
|Clark testified at CPUC hearing that he believes a design flaw in SDG&E lines is responsible for several major fires, including the Witch, Paradise and Cedar fires.
February 24, 2009 (San Diego’s East County) — For $50,000, the cost of a single fire engine, SDG&E could fix an allegedly dangerous problem on power lines in San Diego County, according to electrical engineer and insurance investigator Ed Clark. Clark believes faulty installations caused the 2003 Witch and Paradise fires as well as devastating blazes in 2007. SDG&E disputes Clark’s claim and insists its lines are safe.
“This is the biggest corporate cover-up anyone has ever seen,” Clark told East County Magazine in an exclusive interview.
“You look at Enron; that was a $2.5 billion hit on the economy. In the Witch Fire alone, the losses exceeded $4 billion. If you go back to the Cedar and Paradise fires, which I think this also contributed to, it’s even more. Now you understand why SDG&E doesn’t want to fix this thing.”
Two other electrical experts confirm Clark's contention that the installations are dangerous, and one terms SDG&E "negligent", an East County Magazine investigation has revealed in a related story.
East County Magazine editor Miriam Raftery accompanied Clark to the site of a pole he believes started the Paradise fire, scrambling up a steep slope through poison oak to confirm Clark’s contention that five years after the wildfire, the pole remains with two guy wires attached by a single bolt without insulators--an installation he contends is dangerous and illegal. (see photo).
Clark cited California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) General Order 95, which requires that application of overhead electrical line construction will insure adequate service and secure safety to persons engaged in the construction, maintenance, operation or use of overhead electrical lines and to the public in general. In addition, he states that current installations are a “direct violation” of rule 56.4, which requires 12 inches of separation on poles. “The reason it is illegal is because the design by SDG&E puts the employees and the public safety at risk,” Clark maintained.
SDG&E spokesperson Stephanie Donovan disputed Clark’s contentions. “The causes of the Cedar and Paradise fires have already been found,” she told ECM. “We absolutely disagree with his premise that a single bolt connection could generate enough current by induction during normal operating conditions or even during fault conditions to cause arcing.” Donovan said that Clark failed to provide technical studies or field measurements to prove his contentions.
Clark, an electrical expert hired by Culbreth and Schroeder, a law firm representing Allstate Insurance, to investigate causes of several 2007 fires, presented testimony at the CPUC hearing in San Diego on October 14. Clark testified that he discovered a design error and convinced his employer to request a meeting with SDG&E to propose a way to fix lines and prevent future fires. But at that meeting in December, he was unable to persuade the utility company to address his concerns. “I realized that due to potential extreme financial exposure, SDG&E will not fix or make repairs for fear it might look like an admission of guilt,” Clark said.
Such an admission could make SDG&E liable for over $4 billion in damages from the Witch Creek Fire – and possibly others, Clark observed.
He questioned why Cal-Fire and the CPUC have omitted what he contends is detailed documentation from reports—including photos showing where and how he believes major fires began. “Why has this information (evidence) been suppressed and not disclosed as part of an ongoing investigation?” he asked.
A CPUC member cut off Clark’s testimony at that point, stating that he was over the three-minute time limit. However East County Magazine obtained a full transcript, along with his reports and other documentation.
“I can prove to anyone who cares, or wants to listen, that this design by SDG&E is dangerous and puts the lives of citizens of San Diego County at risk,” Clark’s written testimony stated.
Clark, who turned over documentation to San Diego’s District Attorney and former City Attorney, concluded, “For all of those within SDG&E, Sempra Energy, the CPUC and Cal Fire who have chosen to look the other way and not take appropriate action to protect this community from fire, when the evidence has been handed to them on a silver platter, should be held criminally liable should one more person lose their home or life due to intentional actions and neglect.”
|Clark at pole where he believes the Paradise Fire began.
SDG&E’s Stephanie Donovan has objected to ECM’s characterization of Clark as a “whistleblower.” Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary defines “whistleblower” as “one who reveals something covert or who informs against another” and “who fears reprisals.” Clark has stated that he went public about perceived danger to the public that was not being disclosed, knowing that his job was at stake.
Clark was hired by Allstate’s law firm specifically to investigate causes of the Witch Creek fire and other 2007 wildfires, ECM has confirmed. He independently decided to investigate the 2003 fires and became alarmed at his findings. He has previously provided expert witness testimony both for and against Sempra Energy, owner of SDG&E, on other cases. According to Clark, he has been retained by Sempra in approximately eight to twelve cases as an expert witness. “I was key in Sempra settling a high profile case resulting from an explosion caused by ground current, very similar to this case,” he said. But Sempra spokesperson Donovan said the company has not hired Clark for many years.
“I do both plaintiff and defense work. I’m not biased either way,” Clark added. “When I found this problem, I took it to the people I worked for and convinced them I had to go to SDG&E because it was not something they could sit on. It needs to be fixed.”
But at a meeting with SDG&E representatives, Clark was pressed by an attorney for his employer to sign a confidentiality agreement. “I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “Then I was told it was attorney client privilege and I couldn’t tell anyone. I said that’s wrong, so I took steps to sever my relationship with who I was working for.” Clark was subsequently advised by his employer to do no further investigating into the fires and his services were terminated. Present at that meeting, according to Clark, were Larry Davis, lawyer for Sempra, Brett Culbreth representing Allstate, and several SDG&E employees including protection and transmission engineers. Clark contends that employees who shared his concerns over fire risks of the installations were silenced. “Once they agreed with me, Larry Davis would not let them make anymore comments and asked me to leave the meeting,” he contended.
|Did the 2003 Paradise Fire start at this power pole, caused by a faulty installation, as Ed Clark contends?
What Clark found was evidence that he believes indicates the 2007 Witch fire was not started by two lines rubbing (as reported thus far), but from a far more damning problem that he believes started the 2003 Cedar and Paradise fires as well.
“It’s the most simple, basic design error that you can make in power line construction, and it’s been that way for years,” he told ECM in an exclusive interview and visit to the pole he believes started the Paradise Fire (see photos). The pole had two down guy wires connected by a single bolt, without 12 inches of vertical clearance or insulators. One down guy wire descends into brush still clearly charred; on the opposite side of the pole brush remained unburned. Black marks on a metal piece at the base of the guy wire are indications of arcing Clark believes started the Paradise Fire (see photo).
“I think they knew about it in 2003 and chose not to fix it, for the same reason they are choosing not to fix it now: it’s far cheaper for SDG&E not to fix it and fight this out in court than to fix it and admit guilt,” he told ECM.
The official investigation found that the Witch Fire was caused by two power lines blowing together. “They couldn’t have come together, because they would have fallen to the ground and burned open like a fuse,” he said. “I think SDG&E had a big role in the whole investigation. Things are missing in the Cal Fire report…a lot of stuff is missing that I think could be tied down. If they get tagged for where I say this started, the Witch Fire, they get tagged for the whole thing. I think SDG&E is putting together a great case that they can beat in court.
Clark sent letters to the City attorney and Chief Windsor asking to attend an inspection of lines he contends caused the Witch Fire. But he said, “Despite my efforts, I was not allowed to participate or attend.” Clark provided documentation of his written request to Windsor, two memos to City attorneys, and a safety warning sent to all parties.
Clark argues that the real cause of the Witch fire was two “down guys” or wires that were connected too closely on a pole. The same set-up is widespread throughout San Diego County, he said. “Southern California Edison has a sub-transmission line construction standard that specifically states that down guys need to be separated by 12 inches on the poles,” he explained. PUC Rule 56.4 under General Order 95 clearly states that when two or more guys or span wires parallel and attached to the same pole (either or both of which support conductors) the guy wires must have a vertical separation of “at least one foot between points of attachment on the pole.” If that is not practical, then insulators should be utilized. His report found SDG&E in violation, noting that the entire transmission line 637 and parts of line 682 investigated lacked separation or insulators.
Clark said he led officials from Cal Fire and the CPUC to the spot where the Witch Creek fire started on December 17, 2007. He showed them a charred trail leading down from a guy anchor, tell-tale markings on an SDG&E pole and signs of arcing that he believes ignited dry brush nearby. ‘They would not let me be part of the investigation and show people,” he said. Clark also founded dried grass grown up into the down guys in many places “just waiting for the right time for an arc to take place and start on fire.”
Moreover, Clark went back to the scenes where the 2003 Cedar and Paradise fires began. He found similar patterns for both fires. “I looked at the burn pattern for the Paradise fire, because they never figured out the cause…I found the exact same design on the pole where the Paradise Fire started,” said Clark, who discovered similar evidence where the Cedar Fire, the worst wildfire in California history, began.
|Clark contends black marks on this anchor holding guy wires indicate arcing that he believes caused the Paradise Fire.
Asked about a lost hunter convicted of starting the Cedar Fire with a flare gun, Clark replied, I think they falsely accused the guy in 2003.” He believes the hunter accepted a plea bargain to avoid the risk of conviction on far more serious charges.
When Clark presented his findings to SDG&E, he recalled, “An attorney for SDG&E tells me point blank that SDG&E does not agree with me and they will not fix this problem.”
Donovan said the PUC’s consumer protection and safety division sent a representative out to meet Clark and view the lines in dispute. “They have told Ed Clark that the current installation does not pose any threat to public safety,” she said.
But Clark responded, “The PUC has not responded to me about anything…That is inaccurate.” He added that the San Diego Union-Tribune has reported that the PUC “agreed that there was arcing at those locations.”
Indeed, on February 16, 2008, the Union-Tribune reported that as a result of Clark’s findings, the California Public Utilities Commission opened an investigation into whether the design is safe. A PUC official said a series of black smudges have been found at the spots where support cables attach to anchor rods buried in the ground, suggesting burning between the cables and anchors. “We're looking at those black marks to see why they were caused,” Raffy Stepanian, a program manager in charge of safety and reliability for the PUC, said according to the Union-Tribune. “The black spots seem to be arcing.” Stepanian said there was no proven link to the wildfires but added that his office would interview regulators in other states, academic experts and federal officials to figure out whether SDG&E's single-bolt design presents a hazard.
The CPUC did not respond to ECM requests for an interview in November. But in December, Christopher Chow, new public information officer at the CPUC, sent ECM an e-mail stating, “We have fully investigated the cause of the Guejito, Witch Creek, and Rice wildfires of 2007 in San Diego County and our report is available online. We are aware of Mr. Ed Clark’s allegations and we have found nothing to date that supports the validity of his theories. We will issue a report when our investigation of Mr. Clark’s theories is completed.” According to Chow, SDG&E “is allowed to have wood poles on which there are two down-guy wires connected by a single bolt without insulators and without 12 inches of vertical separation. Tests conducted on SDG&E guy markers with black spots so far indicate that the black spots were not caused by arcing. There are additional tests that will be performed to confirm this.”
Asked what the black marks could be caused by if not arcing, Chow declined to provide details. Given that the investigation has now been ongoing for over a year, ECM asked when it would be completed. Chow replied, “As soon as our evaluation of Mr. Ed Clark’s theories is available, we will let you know.”
SDG&E’s Donovan said Clark’s argument was “full of holes” and that SDG&E engineers are experts in design, construction and distribution who are “very familiar with GO95 rules.” Donovan insisted that Rule 56.4d3 allows attachment of two guy wires with one bolt unless guys are parallel or close to parallel. “The ones in his presentation are about 180 degrees and not even close to being parallel,” she stated. “In fact the federal government standards for construction of 69KV transmission lines require a common bolt or shim for down guys acting in opposite direction. This construction standard is used by more than 400 electrical utility cooperatives throughout the United States. If this were a widespread problem, we would have found this out.”
Two other electrical experts, however, have confirmed Clark’s assertions that the installations are dangerous, pose fire hazards and should be corrected. (see our story: electrical experts confirm whistleblower Clark’s contentions that SDG&E installations are dangerous, could cause fires). Both agree that the installations should be corrected. One, David Brinson of Denver Magnetic, said he believes SDG&E’s refusal to fix its installations “negligent.”
Clark characterized Donovan’s statement as “smoke and mirrors,” adding that she was “taking material out of context.” He added, “I can send them construction standards for Southern California Edison showing this is dangerous…I believe it is illegal, but even if it was not, why aren’t they fixing it?” (To view the Edison standard, click Exhibit 5 on Clark’s website.)
As for Donovan’s contention that the installation method he proposes would violate a federal standard, Clark responded, “It is my opinion that SDG&E has provided you an incomplete federal standard that does not apply in California, in a desperate effort to justify covering up their actions of intentionally making a conscious executive decision not to make repairs to a dangerous design of their system that puts the public in danger.” (View Clark’s full response regarding the federal standard)
Clark added that SDG&E’s relay protection department experts would understand the theory and added, “Under subpoena, I will get it out of them. I have made many requests to Cal Fire, the PUC, and SDG&E to have a meeting about this and they have refused.”
ECM spoke with a media relations representative for the CPUC and sent e-mailed questions, but did not receive a response. A North County Times article, however, quotes CPUC spokesperson Susan Carothers, stating that Clark erred in his interpretation. “She said only 3 inches of separation is required, and it doesn't have to be vertical; it can be horizontal. And with the pole being much larger than 3 inches in diameter, it provides adequate spacing,” that article reported.
Clark called the PUC’s statement is a “misinterpretation” based on faulty understanding of the issue. “In my follow-up to the PUC, I said this is an electrical problem, not a mechanical problem. These people are not electrical engineers,” he told ECM. “I was floored. I couldn’t believe that was the response they came back with. They are not addressing the fact that these two wires are tied together by a bolt, so electrically they are not separated at all, even though the pole is wider than inches.”
Clark said he met with Cal Fire field investigator Jim Garrett, who was responsible for investigating the 2003 Cedar fire. He did not want to hear what I had to say and I never heard another word out of Cal Fire,” Clark said in an interview after tonight’s CPUC hearing. “Nobody ever called to ask for clarification. The part I couldn’t say at tonight because they cut me off (officially due to going over the three-minute limit) was that I asked Cal Fire and the PUC for a joint meeting. I asked them to include SDG&E protection engineers as well as any other utilities they wanted to invite so that we could all resolve this together.”
Cal Fire Captain Howard Windsor transferred to San Diego earlier this year. “I did talk to the battalion chief in charge of investigation here,” he said. “The 2003 fires, neither the Cedar nor Paradise fires were utility caused.” Asked about last year’s Guejito and Rice fires, which Clark also blames on down guy wires, Windsor said all information provided by Clark was reviewed and that he believes Cal Fire investigators’ reports will stand on their own merits. He predicted that Clark’s allegations would be disproven “once it goes to court and is fully adjudicated.”
Clark has created an extensive paper trail that documents materials he has sent to the Chief of Cal Fire, CPUC, and SDG&E. “I have certified receipts for all this stuff,” he added. Portions of his story have been previously reported by Fox 6 News in San Diego and other media, but never to the full extent—and never with the exclusive interview comments or sharply worded testimony provided tonight. He has also sent copies of his materials to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and to former City Attorney Mike Aguirre. Clark said Aguirre met with SDG&E but is not aware of any legal action resulting from his complaints to the D.A. or City Attorney. Aguirre subsequently lost his election in November.
“At the end of the day, ignorance, incompetence, or the corporate bottom line is not an excuse when it comes to Public Safety,” Clark wrote in a closing statement which he was not permitted to present in person due to time constraints on testimony. “For all those within SDG&E, Sempra Energy, the CPUC and Cal Fire who have chosen to look the other way and not take appropriate action to protect this community from fire, when the evidence has been handed to them on a silver platter, should be held criminally liable.”
In an interview with ECM, he reaffirmed his commitment to compel the utility giant to change its installation procedures—or risk liability going forward, whether or not proof of past fires are ultimately pinned on SDG&E/Sempra Energy. “I also sent this to the District Attorney,” he revealed, “So if one more person loses their home, if one more firefighter loses their life, somebody is going to jail.”
Clark’s written testimony and other documentation may be viewed at www.theelectricalexpert.com. SDG&E’s full response to Clark’s allegations may be viewed at docs.cpuc.ca.gov/published/graphics/52593.pdf, with an SDG&E PowerPoint presentation at www.eastcountymagazine.org/images/documents/whistleblower/SDGE Response to Ed Clark_011408.pdf.Clark’s point-by-point response to SDG&E’s arguments made in its PowerPoint presentation is available at www.eastcountymagazine.org/images/documents/whistleblower/sdg&e response.pdf.
Miriam Raftery is a national award-winning journalist who has been reporting on wildfires in San Diego County for the past 20 years.