KBUU Operator Files Lawsuit Over High-Wind Power Blackouts in Malibu

Zuma Beach FM Broadcasters (the organization that operates local station KBUU) has filed a lawsuit—technically an Application for Rehearing of ESRB-8—against the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) for its July 12 decision to let power companies pre-emptively turn off power to designated areas prior to red-flag Santa Ana wind events. The resolution affects not only Malibu, but also all areas in the state where high winds could cause wildfires from toppled power poles and lines igniting dry brush.

Hans Laetz, general manager of the nonprofit KBUU-99.1 FM, pointed out that Malibu’s only radio station is designated by the Federal Communications Commission as an emergency alert system broadcast facility. “Thus, we’re a licensed affected public safety agency that SCE should have, but has not, consulted on mitigation,” Laetz said. “Like, where’s the generator up at the transmitter and for the studio?”   

The mandatory blackouts violate state law, Laetz alleges, because, “If you’re a utility, you’re required to supply ‘safe and reliable’ power even if it’s windy.  

“A power line that has to be turned off in high winds is apparently not safe or reliable,” Laetz continued. “We customers pay rates that the power companies invest to keep the lines up to a set of standards, which have always been interpreted by the CPUC as having to withstand 92-mile-per-hour winds for three seconds.”

David Song, Southern California Edison media relations project manager, said he cannot comment on the lawsuit, but that he would like the opportunity at some point to give their side of the story on what a “public safety power shut-off will entail. 

“It’s important for residents to understand the program,” Song said.

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When asked why he didn’t just let some larger entity file a lawsuit, Laetz said, “If I sit and wait, nothing happens … Just like with the Canyon Fire investigation in 2007, just like the wooden power poles rule changes in 2012; I cannot get our local governments off the dime. They send me warm thoughts and prayers, but that’s it.”   

“Private, citizen action won $67 million in fines in 2014, half of which went to improve the local poles, the other half to the state budget deficit,” Laetz pointed out. “It works. State law places the burden on angered public citizens to intervene for their own area’s safety. It’s a crazy system, designed by the big utilities to keep their mitts on the levers at the CPUC, and it works well for them.”

The lawsuit states that the CPUC’s resolution to turn off power to communities and rural areas was “ill-conceived, rushed and undiscussed” without proper public review. It asks that the CPUC declare its current resolution an “interim rule” until the impact of the blackout procedures can be further studied and modified. 

Not only is the CPUC resolution unlawful, Laetz claimed, but also the commission didn’t follow proper notification procedures prior to the commissions’ vote on July 12. Laetz said the CPUC docket office mistakenly only notified agencies in San Diego County. The rest of California wasn’t notified of the resolution, except the two big utility companies, SCE and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), before the July 12 CPUC meeting in San Francisco. 

“Normally, there would’ve been all these comments filed on it from all these different agencies, but no one knew about it,” Laetz said. Purely by chance, he had run across the CPUC agenda on July 8, and was able to quickly obtain letters protesting the policy from the City of Malibu and the school board and present them at the CPUC meeting. He said the commission “politely brushed aside” the concerns. 

Due to the lack of agency input, a revised resolution passed that let SCE and PG&E off the hook for providing back-up generators or batteries to critical facilities during power shut-offs. 

Laetz’s lawsuit listed the following critical facilities in Malibu that would require generators or additional batteries to keep functioning during a blackout: 24 traffic signals, water pumps for fire hydrants, Frontier landline phones, all cell phones, internet, cell towers, KBUU, schools (which will have to close, at great expense), many of the newer onsite wastewater treatment systems, property gates, garage doors, gas stations and medical and vet clinics.

Another other area of concern to Laetz is that the electric companies would be creating two classes of customer—one with guaranteed power and another with interruptible power, and would be charging them the same rates. In addition, he pointed out environmental issues with every house having to buy a generator, a lack of specific criteria for SCE blackout decisions and the fear that SCE will resort to turning off the power instead of maintaining its equipment. 

During an Aug. 1 Public Safety Commission meeting where the policy was discussed, SCE engineer Bill Chiu said the policy was a “tradeoff” for the sake of safety.

“We completely understand every time we turn off power there is safety impact on the community. This is a difficult decision for us. It’s a tradeoff. The lesser of two evils,” Chiu explained at the time. 

When Public Safety Commissioner Carol Randall asked Chiu about getting a generator, he said it would likely only be appropriate for some customers.

“Each customer will have decide that on their own,” Chiu said. “I would want the customer to be well versed on the risks of having a generator. The last thing we want is to introduce another risk to the customer.” 

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