By J.D. Morris
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pushed back Wednesday on a new report alleging the company repeatedly delayed planned safety upgrades to a transmission line in the area where California's deadliest and most destructive wildfire started last year.
PG&E proposed maintenance work along its Caribou-Palermo transmission line in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 but kept pushing the project back, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal -- a characterization the company disputed. PG&E told The Chronicle that the planned work was not maintenance-related and instead involved compliance with certain regulatory requirements.
A transmission tower along the line in question is located at one of the points in Butte County where state officials say the horrific Camp Fire began Nov. 8, ultimately killing more than 80 people and incinerated more than 18,800 buildings. That tower was not included in the proposed work described by the Journal, according to PG&E.
The cause of the historic blaze is still under investigation, but speculation has centered around PG&E ever since the company reported that a Caribou-Palermo transmission tower malfunctioned near the origin point just before the fire started. PG&E's financial condition rapidly deteriorated in the wake of the fire, culminating with the company's filing for bankruptcy protection last month where it cited potential liabilities from 2017 and 2018 wildfires that could exceed $30 billion.
The Journal reported that PG&E planned to replace many "towers, wires and hardware pieces" along the Caribou-Palermo transmission line and intended to start in June of last year but never began work.
PG&E has not denied that it postponed planned work along the transmission line but disputed the Journal's characterization of it as "maintenance." The company told The Chronicle that the project was not related to fixing any wear and tear along the line and was instead about complying with design-related requirements from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, an organization designated by federal regulators to set mandatory standards for the electric grid.
A 2013 assessment determined that 127 of 455 spans along the Caribou-Palermo transmission line had clearance issues under new NERC guidelines. PG&E planned to replace lattice with steel pole H-frames on 61 structures, re-tension and replace hardware on seven, and add new conductors and hardware on another 21, according to a filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates operators of electric transmission lines.
The work included in the project PG&E planned for the Caribou-Palermo line "generally involves increasing the height of transmission structures and/or adjusting the tension of the conductor," company spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said in an email. She stressed that the tower near the Camp Fire ignition point "and its adjacent spans" were never included in the plans because they were determined to be compliant with the relevant regulations.
Still, Steven Weissman, a former California utility regulator, said PG&E's delays were a "red flag" that suggested the company may not have done enough to keep important projects on schedule. And the fact that the tower by the Camp Fire started was not included in the plans does not resolve all possible concerns, said Weissman, now an emeritus lecturer at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy.
"Just because PG&E did not put this particular tower on its list ... doesn't mean it shouldn't be on the list," he said. "We don't know that one way or the other."
According to PG&E's filings, most of the spans were scheduled to be completed last year, while almost two dozen were scheduled to be finished this year on the $30.3 million project. The system was scheduled to be operative by December.
PG&E changed the target end date "primarily due to the work requiring more operational and engineering work than anticipated," Paulo said in an email.
"The current project scope includes some tower replacements along the line," she said. "There are numerous engineering and construction implications associated with tower replacements, including the need to minimize impacts on steep terrain found along the line while laying foundations. There are also permitting impacts from replacing towers."
The Journal also reported that PG&E shut off the entire 56-mile Caribou-Palermo line in December after a "close inspection" unearthed "problems with the line's structural foundations and hardware supporting wires."
Paulo confirmed the line was turned off "as a precautionary measure" when the company identified repairs that "required action."
"The Caribou-Palermo line will remain out of service until verified to be fully safe," she said. "PG&E's electric system is configured in such a manner that allows for this line to remain out of service without disrupting power to local communities."
PG&E has already made "significant progress" complying with the NERC recommendation that prompted its plans for the Caribou-Palermo line, Paulo said. The company has spent $700 million addressing about 85 percent of the 11,500 discrepancies it identified and expects to finish the remaining work in 2022, when the total cost is expected to top $1 billion, she said.
Shares of PG&E Corp., which is still publicly traded despite its bankruptcy filing, dropped sharply after the report, closing at $17.80, down 3.8 percent. The stock has plummeted in value since the Camp Fire.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Matthias Gafni contributed to this report.
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