After Camp Fire, PG&E found hundreds of ‘immediate safety risk’ problems on equipment

PG&E Corp. said Wednesday its inspectors have found hundreds of “immediate safety risk” problems on its transmission towers and other equipment in recent months, some of them comparable to the flaws that state officials say ignited the Camp Fire last November.

The utility said it has fixed almost all of the problems already.

PG&E officials made the disclosure as they neared completion on an intensive inspection-and-repair program begun earlier this year in response to a 2018 law requiring utilities to improve their wildfire safety records. The utility said it inspected nearly 50,000 transmission towers and other equipment in the high-risk zones of its service territory, far more than usual.

Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program, said inspectors found nearly 100 problems “that we identify as an immediate safety risk or what is deemed as the highest priority” on the transmission towers. They included worn-out pieces of hardware, “similar to the wear that we experienced and saw on the C-hook as an example,” he said.

The Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, has been blamed on a flawed PG&E C-hook — a curved piece of metal that holds up wires — on a transmission tower north of Paradise.

Of the nearly 100 problems on transmission towers, Singh said roughly 15 to 20 were discovered on the so-called Caribou Palermo line, the transmission line where the Camp Fire began. PG&E halted electricity flows through the high-voltage line shortly after the November fire and Singh announced Wednesday that it is being permanently retired.

He said inspectors also found serious problems on about 100 substations and nearly 1,000 of its lower-voltage distribution poles throughout the high-risk fire zones. All of the substation flaws have been fixed, and 97 percent of the problems with distribution poles have been repaired, he said.

“While the proportion of high-priority tags is relatively small (compared to the overall system), the number of safety risks found through these inspections was unacceptable,” he said. “We need to do better.”

He added that inspectors found significant problems on 10 transmission towers in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area north of San Francisco. Those problems are being addressed, he said.

Singh said the quick action is emblematic of PG&E’s efforts to overhaul its safety culture following two disastrous wildfire seasons and universal condemnation from Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials. An estimated $30 billion in wildfire liabilities from the Camp Fire and the October 2017 fires prompted PG&E to file for bankruptcy protection in January.

“While we have made progress, we have more work to do,” Singh said on a conference call with reporters.

SB 901, passed by the Legislature last year, required all major utilities to submit a wildfire risk plan to the Public Utilities Commission.

Along with with a more aggressive tree and vegetation-management program, PG&E had said its wildfire program would cost as much as $2.3 billion. Singh said the final cost could be “a little bit north of that,” in part because the utility had to recruit out-of-state linemen to help with inspections. The company plans to bill ratepayers for the expense, although the PUC will have final say.

PG&E’s wildfire safety program includes aggressive plans to shut off power to areas facing high winds and other risky conditions. The first deliberate blackout of the season, the weekend of June 7, left more than 20,000 customers without power in parts of the North Bay and portions of Butte and Yuba counties, including Paradise. PG&E has said its inspectors found equipment that had been damaged by the high winds, but won’t provide more details until it makes a report to the Public Utilities Commission at the end of the week.

The National Weather Service has issued a “fire weather watch” for Thursday through Saturday for much of the Sacramento Valley, but so far PG&E hasn’t announced any plans for more outages.

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