Guest Column: Are Malibu’s Power Poles Safe?

Last week’s power pole collapse in Trancas Canyon during a minor Santa Ana wind was easy to predict. That section of poles caused one fire a decade ago, the distance between poles is very long, the heavy communications cables sag significantly and the poles look very old and very overloaded. 

We quite literally could have predicted this. A study was just done to find the hot spots where poles are overloaded in Malibu. But that study is being kept secret by the regulatory agency-the California Public Utilities Commission-that’s supposed to protect us. They have the study, and won’t release it.

Remember, the 2007 Malibu Canyon Fire produced about $66 million in fines against Southern California Edison and five wireless communications companies, which hang their heavy black cables and other gear on poles around us. Half went to the state treasury, the other half went to several programs:

– An independent survey was done on the millions of Edison poles in its area, where we learned that 50 percent of their poles in high fire risk areas are overloaded or decrepit.

– 3.3 miles of Malibu Canyon poles were designated for replacement.

– Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and all the other wireless companies did a complete safety inventory of the poles in the Santa Monica Mountains.


Sounds good, but every time with these “wireless” companies, what they accomplish is different from what they promise. 

For example, the Verizon engineers who scoped out the Malibu Canyon replacement project made a dreadful mistake: it seems they relied on Google Earth to do their field survey, and as a result drastically underestimated the amount of work to be done. This has resulted in delay, and the likelihood that very major construction will tie up Malibu Canyon Road for months in the coming future.

And then, the wireless folks filed their state-required safety inventory of power poles in greater Malibu, and incredibly stamped a giant “secret” seal on it. The phone companies claim that state law allows them to keep “proprietary” data at the PUC top secret.

This study would have pointed a big red danger arrow at Trancas Canyon Road, where only luck prevented a wind-whipped fire burning down to Broad Beach in minutes last Wednesday.

I’m an official party to that settlement, and they won’t even give it to me. The Malibu safety analysis that the State of California required these companies to undertake, after they caused a fire that damaged Malibu to the tune of $500 million, is sitting in a file cabinet in San Francisco.

Can you hear my outrage now?

Meanwhile, the PUC has lurched forward, again, with its long-delayed plans to draw up “High Fire Risk Areas” in California, and tighten up safety standards in them. The power companies and wireless providers are writing the new rules, and drawing the new maps. State regulators, beholden to the industry, are going along. Great.

And one of the first ground rules that the PUC set down, early in the process, is “no undergrounding for safety purposes.” Let me repeat that. The state agency that regulates power line safety has already ruled that underground power lines are not to be considered as a solution.

Are you surprised? That’s the same agency that doesn’t investigate pole collapses unless there’s a fire. It’s the same agency that ordered a comprehensive safety review of the poles in greater Malibu, and then refuses to release that report to the public.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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