SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Despite multiple reports of worn C-hooks and a 1987 study on the subject, Pacific Gas and Electric on Thursday strongly denied that it ignored such concerns before a C-hook snapped in November 2018 and sparked the most destructive wildfire in California history.
"The occasions on which PG&E records noted wear on C-hooks or working eyes were limited in the context of the overall number of such components in PG&E’s system, and PG&E followed up on identified issues," PG&E stated in a 14-page court brief.
PG&E filed the document Thursday in response to nine questions posed by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the company's criminal probation for felony convictions related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.
Alsup asked for technical details on the worn C-hook, and related equipment, that snapped off a tower on the Caribou-Palermo line in Butte County on Nov. 8, 2018. The equipment failure caused the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings.
The judge also demanded explanations on whether PG&E tracked how long C-hooks were in place and if it was aware of problems with C-hooks prior to November 2018. He further insisted the company respond to a recent NBC Bay Area report which detailed a 1987 PG&E-commissioned study on worn C-hooks and suggested the utility knew of the problem for more than 30 years.
The 1987 study found two worn C-hooks from a transmission line in Contra Costa County failed at loads of 11,500 pounds of tension, much lower than the 30,000 pounds they were designed to withstand. A third C-hook that did not show visible wear performed even worse, failing at 6,900 pounds.
PG&E vehemently denied it was aware of a problem with worn C-hooks and "did nothing to solve that problem." PG&E noted it had inspection and maintenance programs in place prior to the Camp Fire to detect worn C-hooks and related issues.
The company acknowledged that before the Camp Fire, it did not track how long individual C-hooks and related hanger plates had been in place. PG&E did not say in the court filing if it has since started tracking that information, and a PG&E spokesperson could not immediately answer the question.
PG&E said it possesses some records, such has design drawings, manufacturer catalogs and work orders, that can detail when some C-hooks and hanger plates were installed. Still, the company lacks the ability to track how long every C-hook in its system has been in place.
PG&E has hundreds of thousands of C-hooks in its system. Records on when most C-hooks were installed or replaced may have been purged, the company said, because California's utility regulator only requires it to retain "corrective action" records for 10 years. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has an even lower standard, requiring records of maintenance work orders and job orders be retained for five years.
“PG&E’s transmission system is composed of hundreds of lines, some of which (including the Caribou-Palermo Line) PG&E acquired nearly a century ago," the company stated. "Many of those lines were acquired from companies that did not keep records of when their towers were installed and, as a result, PG&E is not always able to ascertain the length of time any particular C-hook or hanger plate had been in place at the time PG&E acquired those lines."
PG&E also reported 12 incidents between 1987 and 2018 in which problems with worn C-hooks were identified. The company said it only found two C-hook failures in the decade prior the Camp Fire. Those failures resulted from "side loading stress" and a worn insulator string socket, which held the ball of a C-hook.
After the Camp Fire occurred, PG&E said it started conducting climbing and drone inspections for approximately 50,000 transmission structures in high fire-threat areas as defined by its enhanced wildfire safety inspection program.
"These inspections identified over 50,000 conditions on transmission lines, including conditions relating to wear or other damage to C-hooks and hanger plates," the company said. "All of the highest-priority conditions identified as a result of those inspections have been repaired or made safe."
PG&E said in a statement that it shares Judge Alsup's focus on safety and welcomes the opportunity for continued dialogue on "the extensive work we're doing to further strengthen our infrastructure and reduce wildfire risk."
The company said it has inspected almost 730,000 transmission, distribution and substation structures and more than 25 million electrical components since January 2019, using drones and climbing inspections.
"The tragedy in Butte County on Nov. 8, 2018, will never be forgotten," PG&E spokesman Ari Vanrenan said. "We remain deeply sorry about the role our equipment had in this tragedy, and we apologize to all those impacted by the devastating Camp Fire. We continue to cooperate with the remaining investigations related to the Camp Fire."
Also on Thursday, a Napa County resident filed a class action against PG&E in federal bankruptcy court, claiming the company's bungled handling of prophylactic power blackouts made him and others unable to stay in their homes or keep food from spoiling. He said the power shutoffs caused a loss of business and productivity and forced residents to incur extra costs for flashlights, candles, batteries and generators.
Lead plaintiff Anthony Gantner of St. Helena seeks punitive damages for three planned power outages that occurred Oct. 9-12, Oct. 23-Nov. 1, and Nov. 20-22. The largest blackout, which started Oct. 23, affected 973,000 customers in 37 counties with impacts on more than 2 million people. The power shutoff that started Oct. 9 involved about 800,000 customers in 35 counties, and the shutoff that began Nov. 20 affected 50,000 customers in 11 counties.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state's Public Utilities Commission harshly criticized PG&E over its handling of the blackout that started Oct. 9. The company was chided for poor planning, insufficient coordination with local governments, a downed website, an overwhelmed call center and a failure to set up emergency resource centers in affected communities, among other problems.
Vanrenan, PG&E's spokesman, said the utility "believes that the lawsuit lacks merit."
"Proactive de-energization to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires is a recognized best practice and is part of PG&E’s Wildfire Safety Plan submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission. We recognize that turning power off is a hardship for our customers and communities, and it is not a decision we make lightly. PG&E proactively turns off power for one reason only: to keep customers and communities safe," Vanrenan said in an email.
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