$379 Million in Fire Costs Not Our Bill, SoCal Ratepayer Says

This image appeared on the cover of a 2009 paper published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, “A Case Study of a Community Affected by the Witch and Guejito Fires.”

SAN DIEGO (CN) – An outraged consumer sued Tuesday to force approval of a ruling that bars San Diego Gas & Electric from passing on the $379 million cost of devastating wildfires to its consumers.

Northern California is battling the deadliest wildfires in state history this month, but 10 years ago the Witch Fire, Geujito Fire and Rice Fire burned more than 1,300 homes and hundreds of vehicles on more than 200,000 acres in San Diego County.

Represented by Michael Aguirre with Aguirre & Severson, taxpayer Ruth Henricks accuses the California Public Utilities Commission in her federal complaint of twice refusing to confirm an August 2017 decision that refused to let SDG&E pass along the $379 million in fire costs to ratepayers. Two administrative law judges handed down the decision, which said SDG&E “did not reasonably manage and operate its facilities prior to the 2007 Southern California wildfires.”

Henricks says the delays give SDG&E more time to lobby its way off the hook.

“The CPUC created the delay so as to provide an opportunity for SDG&E and its utilities monopoly kin – PG&E and SCE, neither who had been a party in the proceeding’s evidentiary hearings – to meet privately with the commissioners and lobby against the ALJs’ proposed decision denying SDG&E its request to lay the burden of its $379 million fire costs on ratepayers, instead of on the management found to have acted imprudently and unreasonably,” the complaint states, using abbreviations for the commission, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and administrative law judges.

The complaint continues: “These and other pre- and post-proceeding antics by the CPUC — a regulatory agency that has been ‘captured’ by the utilities it is supposed to regulate — was done as a pretext for the CPUC’s goal of not adopting the ALJs’ decision. A violation of Ms. Henricks’ due process thus results.”

This image appeared in a Nov. 17, 2007, BAER report, short for Burn Area Emergency Response, on the Witch Fire. (CNS via San Diego State University)

Henricks, who attended the evidentiary hearings on the fire costs and cross-examined witnesses, says CPUC president Michael Picker, a defendant, improperly allowed SDG&E to make additional arguments outside the evidentiary hearing record this year.

She also says that after the judges’ August 2017 decision, SDG&E representatives had five private ex parte communication meetings with commission advisers.

Since the administrative law decision in August, two other California utilities – PG&E and SCE — have been added as parties to the proceedings. Henricks says the utilities are trying to raise an inverse condemnation defense to pass off to ratepayers the costs of the uninsured losses.

The fires are believed to have been sparked by utilities equipment.

“In violation of Ms. Henricks’ rights, the CPUC decision makers have already decided to relieve SDG&E from the proposed decision that makes SDG&E, and not the ratepayers, bear the costs of the fires for which they were found to have acted unreasonably and imprudently,” Henricks says in the complaint.

She seeks an injunction prohibiting the CPUC from allowing ratepayers to be charged for any of the $379 million in fire costs. Her attorney, Aguirre, is a former San Diego city attorney who specializes in regulatory law.

The CPUC could not be reached for comment after business hours Tuesday.

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