By Miriam Raftery
November 1, 2009 (San Diego) – San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E) has agreed to pay $14.3 million to the state to settle claims that its poor maintenance caused the 2007 Witch Creek, Rice, and Guejito fires, plus an extra $400,000 in reimbursement to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). SDG&E did not admit causing the fires, but did issue an apology for obstructing investigators seeking causes of the fires.
Cox Cable agreed to pay the state $2 million. “We believe that our line was properly maintained and intact prior to the Santa Ana winds in 2007, and did not cause the Guejito fire,” a Cox statement read. The PUC will decide after a public hearing in San Diego whether to approve the proposed settlement, which would be paid from company profits, not ratepayers.
Some community leaders expressed dissatisfaction at the news. “It seems to be business as usual for SDG&E,” observed Donna Tisdale, Boulevard Planning Group chair. “Get caught lying, cheating, or failing to comply, refuse to admit guilt, give a half-assed apology, and write a big fat check that never reaches the impacted/damaged communities.”
Earlier this year, SDG&E agreed to pay $1 million to settle claims that it lied to PUC staffers while seeking approval of the Sunrise Powerlink line. The company also agreed to provide ethics training for its top executives. SDG&E has also paid out over $740 million to insurance companies that paid claims for the fires, but many fire victims still have not been paid for their uninsured losses.
The settlement does not affect lawsuits in San Diego Superior Court, in which hundreds of fire victims as well as government agencies are seeking damages from SDG&E for losses sustained in the 2007 wildfires.
In a prepared statement, SDG&E president Debra Reid said that company settled with the state “to put the issue behind us and avoid the costs and risks of further litigation.” The statement maintains that the company’s system “met all compliance and safety requirements” but admits that SDG&E “fell short of meeting our obligations with respect to three follow-up reports.”
Supervisor Dianne Jacob, a vocal opponent of SDG&E on fire-related issues, could not be reached for comment over the weekend. But a staffer provided East County Magazine with a fall 2009 newsletter which states that SDG&E of knowingly posing a serious fire risk by having reclosers (switches along power lines that work like circuit breakers) programmed to power up automatically after high winds or a falling tree limb disturbs wires. According to Jacob’s newsletter, since the wildfires, SDG&E has reprogrammed reclosers in high-fire areas to work manually—so power won’t be turned back on until an inspector checks the line, reducing the risk of sparks that can ignite a fire.
“By SDG&E’s own admission, the new policy would have prevented the devastating Witch Fire in October 2007 had it been in place,” Jacob’s newsletter states. “Well before the 2007 firestorm, SDG&E knew its automatic reclosers posed a dangerous fire risk. “ SDG&E did not change its recloser policy in response to this known threat, unlike Southern California Edison, which disengaged automatic recloser switches during Santa Ana Winds starting in 1996,according to Jacob. She cites a document prepared by SDG&E and other utilities titled “Power Line Fire Prevention Field Prevention Guide” as evidence that automatic reclosers can cause fires by re-energizing faulted lines.
As part of its settlement with the state, which was announced Friday, SDG&E agreed to take steps to better maintain its lines and equipment. While the company has not admitted fault, state investigators have concluded that power lines caused the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires. The Witch Creek fire was found to be due to spacing lines too closely, while the Rice fire was blamed on inadequate tree trimming by the utility. PUC inspectors found the Guejito fire was caused by a Cox wire touching an SDG&E power line. The fires burned over 1,300 homes, killed two people, and caused thousands to evacuate or suffer other damages.
Jacob concluded, “In the months ahead, I look forward to sitting at the table with SDG&E to get serious about undergrounding, swapping steel poles for wood poles, increased inspections, better vegetation management and other measures SDG&E should have tackled long ago.”