Malibu Power Pole Issue Remains in Public Spotlight as New Details Are Unveiled
• Cellular Providers Say Edison Charges the Firms for Inspections While Absolving Itself of the Duty to Do Them
BY HANS LAETZ
BY HANS LAETZ
Two power poles that snapped in Malibu Canyon and sparked the disastrous October 2007 fire were originally installed in 1957, and had last been “intrusively inspected” by Southern California Edison in 1990, according to documents obtained by the Malibu Surfside News.
Although Edison electric officials maintain that wireless phone companies were responsible for calculating safe wind and weight loads on the poles as they installed heavy new cables and antennas, the phone companies counter that Edison not only takes responsibility for the inspections of electric poles but bills the firms for them.
The electric utility and the four wireless phone companies may find themselves going after each other for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages alleged in civil lawsuits filed after the 2007 fire, which took out 10 houses, a church, two schoolrooms and a landmark castle as Santa Ana winds whipped sparks from the downed poles into an inferno.
On Monday, the firestorm of controversy entered Malibu City Council chambers, when an Edison electric company spokesperson said the firm wants to work with local governments to improve statewide pole safety regulations. On the same day, company lawyers filed documents objecting to a state-ordered investigation into pole safety because the company is concerned about defending itself against the fire-related lawsuits.
The city council directed the city attorney to investigate how the city might intervene in a formal investigation launched by the California Public Utilities Commission into utility pole safety, and the Edison company’s claim that calculating safe wind and weight loads placed on poles it installed are the sole responsibility of wireless phone and cable TV companies. These firms paid Edison for access to tens of thousands of wooden poles across 11 California counties decades after Edison installed them.
An attorney for the four cellular telephone companies alleged to state investigators that Edison not only has a state-approved inspection program for add-on cables and antennas, but actually sends bills to cell companies for its annual drive-by safety inspections.
“We are facing a really bad situation,” said Mayor Andy Stern at Monday’s council session. “It’s horrifying thought that poles that were put up decades ago are now being loaded with more and more wires and everyone is saying ‘It’s not my responsibility,’” he said.
Councilmember Jefferson Wagner said he shared the mayor’s concerns, and Pamela Conley Ulich asked for the city to work with nearby coastal towns to come up with a common plan to demand underground powerlines in hazardous locations. The state investigation, however, is limited to whether the lines are safe under existing regulations.
The council’s remarks came after Edison government relations liaison Mark Olson stood before them to read a prepared statement, the company’s first reaction after the Malibu Surfside News began investigating the issue earlier this month. “Because of pending litigation,” Olson said, “Southern California Edison is unable to comment on an investigation by the Public Utilities Commission into the fire.
“However, SCE and other regulated utilities, including telecommunications and cable providers, currently are working with the PUC, state, and local fire agencies and other key stakeholders in a public rulemaking to review potential changes in statewide regulations,” Olsen read into the record.
Edison is taking a similar tack at the state regulatory body, where it complained in documents released Monday that the state probe into what happened as Santa Ana winds swept Malibu Canyon Road at 4:30 a.m. Oct. 17, 2007 “calls for the disclosure of information and materials protected by applicable privileges including, but not limited to, the privileges for attorney-client communications and attorney work product.”
Edison attorney Brian Cardoza wrote that the power company was being asked to provide safety calculations for poles that had been altered over the years by four cellular phone companies. “Those utilities which added facilities to the poles...would be the best source of relevant [safety study] documents generated by them or at their request.”
The Edison attorney provided inspection records that show poles holding up the 66,000 and 16,000-volt circuits were visually inspected every year since at least 1992, but the two primary load-bearing poles had last been subjected to an “intrusive inspection” in 1990.
But the two poles were installed in 1957, a purported fact not addressed in the Edison report and only brought to light by an attorney for the four cellular phone companies. That lawyer represents companies that appear to be at odds with the power company over liability for what the state says was an illegal overloading of the poles, causing them to topple in 50-mph winds when they should have been able to withstand 92-mile gusts.
Even though the poles appear to have been placed on the lip of windy Malibu Canyon decades before the new fiber optic cables were even invented, Edison argued this week that the poles were not overloaded “because the general design practices of the [SCE] Transmission Department required poles to be constructed with enough safety factor allowance to satisfy the light loading requirement.”
Edison repeated its earlier assertion that the cell companies that bought partial ownership of the poles—AT&T, NextG, Sprint and Verizon—were responsible for the safety of the added weight because of industry “custom and practice...to take adequate precaution to ensure that their facilities fully comply” with PUC safety rules for utility poles.
“This concept is well understood,” the Edison lawyer stated.
Not so, said the written arguments from the consortium of wireless phone companies who stand as codefendants in the civil lawsuits. Lawyer Peter Hanschen told the PUC that the joint pole sharing arrangement has precise agreements that show “SCE does in fact perform wind loading calculations or verifications to determine whether a new pole addition will cause the pole to exceed minimum safety factors.”
The phone company attorney said Edison had taken possession of the downed poles and has only allowed phone company experts to look at one side of the damaged gear. The phone companies’ experts “have not to date been allowed to perform any tests on the poles,” wrote Hanschen.
The phone companies began installing fiber optic trunk cables on the Eisenhower-era poles beginning in 1990, and ending in 2004. In the midst of that, Edison added its own fiber communications trunk to the poles, which also supported six large cables carrying a total of 82,000 volts, as well as Edison-owned streetlights and power supply cables for them, cellular antennas and crossbeams, and electric meters to measure how much power the cellular systems should be billed.
But cell phone company inspections of the poles appear from the PUC filings to be even more cursory than the power company’s. “Verizon Wireless’ inspection approach includes visual patrol-type inspection of the Verizon Wireless fiber network each time a contractor is sent to a job site,” wrote Hanschen. “Under [the] Verizon Wireless inspection program, the contractor would have visually inspected the communication facilities on the poles in question as it traversed Malibu Canyon on the way to and from the job site to perform maintenance on other poles.”
Since Verizon contractors often had assignments in Malibu, “the contractors probably would have traveled on Malibu Canyon Road, thus performing visual inspection of Verizon Wireless’ fiber facilities,” the attorney wrote.
“The poles almost certainly were visually inspected by [Verizon predecessor] AirTouch when it first added the facilities in 1995, as the approach of visually inspecting each pole that one works on, as well as the immediately adjoining poles, is customary in the industry,” he wrote.
State requirements for more stringent safety inspections of utility poles, the phone company lawyer wrote, only apply to power companies.
PUC officials solicited the comments from the electric and wireless companies last January, as they opened an unusual investigation after getting a staff report that revealed the dispute over pole safety measurements. The probe is open-ended and there is no target date for new rules to be voted on, should they be found necessary.
But the myriad lawsuits filed by property owners tallying losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars may take much longer to work through the courts, observers said.