City’s hands tied over utility pole safety regulation

The Public Utilities Commission has informed the city that it retains jurisdiction. In the meantime, the PUC is investigating whether the utility companies that use the poles in Malibu violated safety regulations.

By Olivia Damavandi / Staff Writer

A recent investigation conducted by the City of Malibu to determine its level of jurisdiction in regulating the safety of utility poles within the city was met with negative results.

In the meantime, the Public Utilities Commission held a conference in San Francisco on Wednesday of last week in the ongoing investigation to determine whether Southern California Edison or any of the four other telecommunications companies that co-owned the wooden utility poles had allegedly violated regulations on how much equipment could be safely installed on them prior to the Malibu Canyon Fire.

The city council last month directed City Attorney Christi Hogin to investigate actions the city could take to protect it against potential fire hazards after learning that the October 2007 Malibu Canyon Fire, according to recent reports by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and field investigations by California Public Utilities Commission staff, was started when three top-heavy, electric-wire utility poles snapped due to alleged exceeded weight restrictions.

Mayor Andy Stern on Tuesday confirmed the city’s receipt of a recent letter from the PUC, which states that the utilities commission has complete jurisdiction over the safety of overhead electric transition and electric distribution facilities such as wires and poles, as well as underground transmission distribution facilities and pole attachments.

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“Other than making noise, there’s nothing we can do,” Stern said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “It’s up to the Public Utilities Commission.”

In prehearing conference statements, Edison and utility pole joint-owners Verizon Wireless, Sprint Communications, NextG Networks of California, AT&T California and AT&T Mobility have all denied violations of construction, operation maintenance or inspection requirements.

The PUC, however, has stated that neither Edison nor the telecommunications companies are computing wind or weight loads on the aging utility poles. Edison did not issue the date when the poles were erected, but the telecommunications companies say they were installed in 1957.

Lawsuits have been filed against the companies by those affected by the fire.

Edison spokesman Steven Conroy earlier this month told the Los Angeles Times the utility “takes serious responsibility for maintaining our poles and wires,” adding that each time another company adds wires or equipment, it is that company’s responsibility to calculate whether the pole can safely handle the load.

Currently, the city’s only option for improving the safety of utility poles is to underground them, a procedure Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich last month estimated at $1 million per mile.

Although he supported the idea, Stern called undergrounding “unrealistic,” especially given the city’s recent $1.4 million cut from its proposed 2009-2010 fiscal year budget.

“I think we’re facing a really bad situation,” Stern told The Malibu Times last month. “It is a horrifying thought to think that poles put up years ago are being loaded up with more and more wires and nobody’s taking responsibility. It seems to me these are ticking time bombs ready to explode and nobody’s doing anything about it.”

The Malibu Canyon Fire in four hours burned 4,500 acres, six homes, Castle Kashan, and several businesses and classrooms at two schools. Central Malibu was evacuated for three days and three firefighters were injured.

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