BOOK REVIEW: CIRCLE THE WAGONS SDGE REKINDLES DEBATE OVER UTILTIY LINES' ROLE IN LOCAL WILDFIRES
Circle The Wagons SDG&E: The Perfect Corporate Cover Up, By Ed Clark (Self-Published, Huntington Beach, CA, 2010, 30 pages.)
Book Review: By Dennis Moore
November 6, 2010 (San Diego’s East County) -- Electrical expert Ed Clark, who formerly worked for Southern California Edison Company, has written a provocative book about corporate cover-up and the role that he contends it played in major fires in Southern California: namely the 2003 Cedar Fire, the 2003 Paradise Fire , and the Witch Creek Fire in 2007. It is Clark’s contention that these fires were electrical in nature, and very preventable.
This Huntington Beach, California resident has the education and background experience to back up his claims. With his technical experience and educational background (Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering), Mr. Clark has appeared as an expert witness in the electrical utility arena--including a witness for SDG&E, before he became a whistleblower on fire hazards he contends that SDG&E's installation methods pose to the public.
At times, the book reads like the Erin Brockovich movie (2000) about a single mother/legal assistant’s crusade against a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply. There are many similarities between the actual Erin Brockovich and Ed Clark, in that Brockovich alleged and challenged a corporate cover-up by Pacific Gas & Electric in California, and Clark has alleged and challenged a corporate cover-up by San Diego Gas & Electric. Of course, we now know how the Erin Brockovich story ended. It remains to be seen how Clark’s story will end.
Clark’s book and his tenacity at uncovering disturbing details about a seemingly unending saga of wildfires in Southern California beg the questions: Why does this continually happen and what are the root causes?
Clark’s story stems from his experience while investigating the 2007 Southern California wildfires. He states in his book, “Electrical overhead power lines have been known to cause fires for a variety of reasons like, car hit poles, birds making contact with power lines, equipment failures, high winds, trees, etc.”
Mr. Clark indicates in his book that he had received a phone call on October 25, 2007 from a law firm that he had done a substantial amount of expert witness work for over the past several years. He further indicated that this law firm does the subrogation work for a large out of state, insurance carrier, and he was asked to investigate all of the Southern California fires that could potentially be caused by electrical utilities. These California fires included the Canyon (Malibu) Fire, the Magic (Magic Mountain) Fire, the Rice (Rice Canyon) Fire, and the Witch (Witch Creek) Fire.
Significant in his story is that on October 25, 2007, accompanied by two experienced arson investigators, the author points out that they drove to the site believed as the point of origin where the 2007 Witch Creek fire originated. As they drove up to the 69v line known as Transmission Line 637, Clark noticed that the cables utilized to support the pole in high winds known as down guys, were tied together with a common bolt on the pole, which he says is wrong and a violation of GO-95 clearance requirements. GO-95 is referred to as California Public Utilities Commission General Order 95, and that GO-95 is the California Standard for the construction and maintenance of Utility owned facilities.
Clark was not alone in his investigation of the root causes of the Southern California wildfires. San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper reporter Jeff McDonald started investigating the story, and inquiries were made to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), causing the PUC to launch their own independent investigation.
Clark further states in his book that a PUC investigator admitted in a phone interview with Jeff McDonald of the Union Tribune that “arcing” was present at the ground level along the Transmission line 637 of the Cedar and Paradise fires, a plausible cause of those fires.
This would result in the Union Tribune publishing a story on February 10, 2008, and then a follow up story on February 23, 2008, and Fox 6 news airing a story in March of the same year, called “Witch Creek Mystery.” Clark explains that “arcing,” or an electrical arc, is caused by electrical current flowing, resulting from a difference in electrical potential--the same theory as an arc welder when someone is welding two pieces of metal together. He further indicates that the arcing discovered in San Diego is a “location” arcing, and should never occur, which resulted in starting the fire--like striking a match and igniting dry brush with a hot electrical arc.
Clark admits in his book of feeling “tremendous pressure” and experiencing shortness of breath and “paranoia,” along with being “scared for his safety,” during the course of attempting to reveal an alleged cover-up by a corporate giant, SDG&E. Erin Brockovich probably had similar feelings during her trials with Pacific Gas & Electric.
Clark indicates that when all of this was going on, inquiries to SDG&E from various parties were being made. He believes it is important for the public to know that although he met with Sempra Energy and three key employees with San Diego Gas & Electric who he said fully understood the theory and design error made and how “arcing” occurs back on December 17, 2007, the responses to date have been irresponsible in his view. He likens their responses as efforts to “Circle the Wagons” (a term drawn from pioneer days, when wagon trains formed a circle to fend off attacks) and confuse the public in an effort to divert attention and raise questions.
Meanwhile, we continue to have wildfires in Southern California that cause untold damage to property--damage that Clark alleges is preventable.
The author includes in his book attachments including meeting minutes of the California Public Utilities Commission and Cal Fire, as well as his letters to President Obama and Homeland Security alleging corporate cover-up and insurance fraud.
Clark sums up this thought-provoking book and story, by stating: “It is not a function of ‘if’ it is a function of ‘When’ SDG&E will cause the next fire in San Diego. Leadership starts at the very top. When those at the top, whether elected officials, corporate or private executives, don’t have the courage to be pro-active, it leaves those who rely on them without a leader. Just look at the source of the financial crises, BP Oil crisis, Enron, etc. It all comes down to the inability to lead.”
Many of Clark’s allegations have previously been published in East County Magazine in a February 24, 2009 special report: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=456_whistleblower. SDG&E spokesperson Stephanie Donovan called Clark’s story “full of holes” and insisted the company’s lines are safe. But two independent electrical witnesses confirmed major aspects of Clark’s concerns, with one calling SDG&E “negligent”, as ECM reported in a companion story also published February 24, 2009: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=457_electrical_experts. Then on June 14, 2010, ECM reported that SDG&E quietly changed out an installation that Clark alleged caused the 2003 Paradise Fire; SDG&E declined to comment on whether it planned to change out more lines that Clark had identified as risks, as ECM reported: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/3553.
Clark's contentions are at odds with some official reports and legal proceedings. For example, a court ruled that the Cedar Fire was caused by a lost hunter's signal flare. But Clark's arguments are compelling--and disturbing.
Circle the Wagons SDG&E serves as an indictment of corporate power and the regulatory agency that is supposed to protect the public, raising issues that merit further research and consideration. I strongly recommend this fiery and provacative read.
Dennis Moore is a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild. He has written for LifeAfter50 Magazine in Pasadena, California, and the Baja Times Newspaper in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. Mr. Moore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org