Verizon Seeks Two-Year Delay in Malibu Power Pole Replacement

Power pole replacement along Malibu Canyon Road, a consequence three cell phone companies paid for their role in the 2007 Malibu Canyon fire, is now anticipated to be delayed from its original end date of March 2015 until April 19, 2017, with physical replacement anticipated to take seven months. 

This is according to a letter sent by Verizon Wireless attorney Jesús G. Román last week, requesting Paul Clanon, executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), tack a 25-month extension onto the 30-month project.

The power pole replacement deal came as part of a settlement between Verizon Wireless and the CPUC, during which Verizon, Sprint and AT&T each agreed to pay the state $4 million, although they continued to deny wrongdoing. The companies, accused of overloading weak poles to facilitate telecommunications equipment, then became responsible for overseeing the replacement of poles along the road. The poles belong to Southern California Edison.

The fire began Oct. 21, 2007, when three power poles along Malibu Canyon Road snapped due to high Santa Ana winds. By some estimates, the fire, which destroyed 36 vehicles and 14 structures, caused up to $500 million in damage.

According to local citizen intervener Hans Laetz, who serves on an advisory panel to the CPUC, Román’s letter missed an important point when outlining the reasons the companies would be late in their goal to replace 53 poles in a 3.38 mile stretch along Malibu Canyon Road: shoddy engineering in the first stages of the project.

“The phone companies used Google Earth to count the poles, without even sending a truck out to make sure it was right,” Laetz said. Laetz maintains the project experienced its first delay in early 2013, when the cell companies realized they miscounted the poles and would have to scrap their data.

This does not appear in the request for extension letter sent by Román, who instead cites a change in Edison’s internal requirements as the first reason for a delay.

These internal requirements include requirements for poles to be taller in many locations to facilitate additional equipment like Fault Return Conductors (FRCs) and avian protection on poles to protect local wildlife. 

“Taller poles are necessary to accommodate additional clearances needed for several of these design requirements including, for example, for avian protection on steel poles,” the letter reads.

It goes on to say, “As a matter of safety to workers and others, SCE has required FRCs for steel poles, but [the cell companies] were unaware of this requirement until after the pole remediation project began.”

Another reason for the delay, as cited by Román, is an increased project scope, since SCE separately plans to replace 25 poles, thus increasing the size of the project by nearly 33 percent. With that increase, additional permits, including California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reports, may be determined to be necessary.

“The scope of the project is considerably larger than [cell companies] expected or the commission anticipated in setting a 30-month deadline,” the letter states.

Finally, Román claimed that complications due to the new Local Coastal Plan (LCP) will “substantially delay completion of the pole remediation project,” with the permitting process, originally estimated to take 90 days, now estimated to last up to 18 months.

The new timeline estimates that physical pole replacement will begin in October 2016 and last until April 2017, although no further details as to how the replacement along the two-lane road will be completed are available, with some fearing periodic road closures along Malibu Canyon Road during those seven months.

“They’re trying to do the right thing and you cannot fault them for that, but their track record on this has just been abysmal,” Laetz said.

Laetz said the request will likely be approved.

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