Telecommunication companies deny overloading utility poles

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Utility poles and lines lie amid the scorched area of Webb Way and Winter Canyon Road after the October 2007 Malibu Canyon Fire. Photo by Teresa Gelbman

The PUC is investigating whether alleged violations regarding the poles started the 2007 Malibu Canyon Fire.

By Olivia Damavandi / Assistant Editor

The state Public Utilities Commission held a pre-hearing conference Tuesday in San Francisco as part of its ongoing investigation to determine whether five telecommunications companies caused the October 2007 Malibu Canyon Fire.

Southern California Edison, Verizon Wireless LLC, Sprint Communications Company, NextG Networks of California, and AT&T Communications of California, Inc. are under scrutiny by the PUC for allegedly violating regulations on how much equipment could be safely installed on their jointly owned wooden utility poles prior to the Malibu Canyon Fire.

The Oct. 21, 2007 fire, according to recent reports by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and field investigations by PUC staff, was started when three top-heavy, electric-wire utility poles snapped due to alleged exceeded weight restrictions.

In pre-hearing conference statements, all five telecommunications companies have denied violations of construction, operation maintenance or inspection requirements. Calls made last week to each company have not yet been returned.

The PUC, however, has stated that none of the 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 other companies say they were installed in 1957.

Malibu resident Ed Meyer, whose house incurred significant damage from the fire, filed a claim against Edison and has until October to file a lawsuit.

“We have to wait until the PUC comes out with the cause of fire before we can do anything,” Meyer said last week in a phone interview. The investigation is scheduled for completion by December, according to a tentative timeline in a PUC staff report.

Meanwhile, Meyer said nothing has been done to alleviate the weight on the poles, which, he said, are still overloaded with fiber optic cables and cellular antennae, among other materials.

“Malibu is a very progressive town,” he said. “You’ve got people with huge Internet connections because of entertainment. The amount of cable connections is going to increase exponentially. Something has to be done because these poles can’t take this kind of load. It’s another problem waiting to happen.”

Last year in April, the Malibu City Council directed City Attorney Christi Hogin to investigate actions the city could take to protect it against potential fire hazards from overloaded utility poles. But the PUC declared it 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.

“Other than making noise, there’s nothing we can do,” Stern told The Malibu Times in a past phone interview. “It’s up to the Public Utilities Commission.”

Currently, the city’s only option for improving the safety of utility poles is to underground them, a procedure estimated to cost $1 million per mile.

“I think we’re facing a really bad situation,” Stern had said. “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 burned about 3,836 acres in the Malibu area, destroyed 14 structures and 36 vehicles, and damaged 19 other structures, including Castle Kashan, Malibu Presbyterian Church and several businesses and classrooms at two schools. Central Malibu was evacuated for three days and three firefighters were injured. The property damage is estimated at $14.5 million, according to a recent PUC report.