Public utility investigators are recommending $99 million in fines against Southern California Edison and four telecommunication companies for allegedly overloading power poles that collapsed and sparked a wildfire in Malibu Canyon.
The California Public Utilities Commission's Consumer Protection and Safety Division said in a filing Friday that Edison destroyed evidence and misled investigators about the cause of the Oct. 21, 2007, blaze, which destroyed 14 structures and 36 vehicles.
In the gusty hours before dawn, pieces of three wooden utility poles snapped off and fell to the ground. Sparks from the live electrical wires ignited brush, setting off a fiery front that raced down Malibu Canyon and into the Civic Center area, the filing said.
The poles were so top-heavy with electrical and telecommunications wires and equipment that they broke up in winds they should have been able to withstand, a PUC investigation concluded.
Edison called the proposed fine "excessive" and said it was not supported by the evidence. The company said it was "particularly disappointed" with allegations that it misled the commission during the investigation.
"SCE believes it has at all times complied with its obligations and will continue to vigorously defend itself in this proceeding," the company said in a statement. "Public safety is a matter of utmost importance to SCE, as is its reputation for complying with its obligations as a regulated utility."
Edison installs power poles in the canyon but then shares ownership with other companies, including Verizon Wireless, Sprint Communications, NextG Networks of California and a team of AT&T California and AT&T Mobility. The Southern California Joint Pole Committee keeps track of the ownership stakes.
As high-speed Internet access, cable television and mobile communications have grown in popularity, bulky wires, antennas and equipment have been added to the poles to meet demand. Regulatory investigators say that added weight increases the risk that poles will topple amid the high seasonal winds that funnel through Southern California canyons.
Downed power lines have been blamed for several of the area's biggest fires, including the 2008 Sesnon fire in the San Fernando Valley, and officials have been under pressure to reduce the hazards.
In Friday's filing, investigators accused an Edison official of lying under oath in an accident report about his knowledge of potential causes.
The filing also alleges that the company misled investigators by asserting that all physical evidence was preserved in a Westminster warehouse. Investigators say the materials had been compromised as evidence because of tests performed by the utility.
The bulk of the allegations and possible penalties listed in the filing are directed at Edison. Investigators suggested that Edison pay nearly half of the $99.2 million in recommended fines.
A conference is scheduled for Wednesday in San Francisco to set a date for hearing the consumer division's claims. The division staff said it expects the six-week hearing to resolve issues including whether the poles were overloaded, for how long and the extent to which the utilities may have discarded or destroyed evidence.
The consumer division said that the utility and telecommunication companies had expressed a strong preference for a private mediation on the overloading issue, but that investigators called on the commission to demand a public hearing.
"This case raises significant safety concerns regarding the utilities' pole overloading practices and it is critical that the commission and the public be informed regarding those practices," the filing said.
Hans Laetz, a Malibu resident who was approved by a judge to become a citizen party in the case, listened in on deposition testimony and cross-examination of witnesses. What he saw, he told a reporter Saturday, "would scare the bejeebers out of anyone who lives in a canyon with a fire hazard."
Laetz, a 54-year-old environmental law analyst and journalist, became involved because he was troubled by the spindly-looking utility poles in his neighborhood leaning in the strong winds that pass through Malibu Canyon and looking as though they would soon buckle under the pressure.
"My family and my neighbors in Malibu are being placed at risk," he said.
"I drove under those poles on Malibu Canyon Road for 10 years, and I thought one of these days, one of those poles was going to fall. You could tell this was a disaster waiting to happen…. And then it happened."