Local Files Formal Complaint Against Edison Over Pole Fires

Southern California Edison

Local activist Hans Laetz spoke on behalf of just about every resident of Malibu — especially the western half of the city — when he filed a 198-page document with the state’s public utility commission (CPUC) on Nov. 21. 

There’s a “Formal Complaint” — actually, a series of complaints — regarding 13 “fiery or explosive” flashover incidents on power poles that caused sustained power outages for Malibu residents over the past few months — mostly during periods of fog or drizzle. 

The second document, the “Petition for Rulemaking,” outlines 18 proposed changes to California’s utility regulations, making them more specific in terms of improving inspection, detection, public reporting, preventive maintenance and equipment in areas where frequent fog can impact the overhead electric delivery system.

The number of power outages Malibu has experienced is five times greater than the SCE system-wide average from June 2015 — June 2016, and has been 10 to 12 times the system average since then, according to the filing. 

The cause of at least 12 of the power outages was believed to stem from SCE’s decision to stop power-washing overhead equipment, causing salts and grime to build up, resulting in “flashovers” — high-voltage electrical shorts with ignition of combustible materials. “And then fog or drizzle makes it conduct electricity even better,” Laetz said. SCE considers fog and drizzle to be an “extreme” weather condition that can cause weather-related outages, according to previous statements.

Laetz contended the flashovers not only cause power outages, but “raise the threat of wildfire or injury; and are associated with voltage fluctuations that have fried electronic equipment, including one incident that caused traffic signals on PCH to fail for a day.”

He pointed out the flashover problems are worse on wooden poles over 70 years old, but have also occurred on new poles erected in Malibu by SCE over the past two years. 

In addition, Laetz noted his observation that “SCE has routinely transferred the old crossarms, insulators and appurtenances onto new poles.”

Representatives for Southern California Edison were contacted for this story, but did not respond to questions by the time The Malibu Times went to print. 

CPUC spokesperson Chris Chow responded to Laetz’s inquiry about this in October, writing “SCE is not required to replace equipment if it is in working condition and meets regulatory requirements.”

Laetz’s complaint requests the commission to conduct a formal investigation into the power pole issues, including whether the problems only occur in Malibu or are found throughout the SCE service area or other areas served by Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) in California.

The formal complaint also specifies certain failures to comply with a 2013 ruling in which SCE agreed to pay $37 million to resolve concerns about three overloaded utility poles that sparked the 2007 Malibu Canyon fire. Various changes and safety protocols were supposed to have been written and put into effect as part of a Malibu Area Safety Enhancement Protocol.

In addition, the complaint states that Verizon evaded its duty to rebuild Malibu Canyon utility poles as required in its Settlement Agreement by “dumping the Malibu Canyon utility pole remediation on Frontier Communications,” despite the fact that Verizon Wireless has substantial equipment in the canyon and Frontier doesn’t, and Verizon is a much larger company, Laetz wrote.

“My business, a radio station, has had to buy generators, routers, a new transmitter power supply (and various other equipment) so we can stay on the air when the phones, internet and cable all go out [due to power outages],” Laetz wrote. 

Although Steven Sprague, SCE’s manager of the Thousand Oaks District (which includes Malibu) appeared before the Malibu City Council two weeks ago and stated that coastal washing would resume through November on PCH and arterial streets, Laetz would like to see SCE held to more formal standards.

At that meeting, Mayor Lou La Monte assured Laetz that he will continue to seek answers to the questions raised by the recent outages. “Hans’ questions are also from me,” he told Sprague. 

One of the rule changes Laetz requested is for the SCE (or any utility) to notify affected customers, the CPUC and the public when a circuit has its third unplanned outage within any 12-month period. He then wants the utility to be required to publish a remediation plan within a week, and then follow up in a year with a compliance report. 

Laetz hopes the formal complaint will trigger an investigation that results in a panel of experts coming to Malibu to analyze the problems. However, he knows from past experience that it’s likely to be a “long, bureaucratic process” before everything gets resolved.