The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on Thursday approved a $51.5 million settlement with Southern California Edison and telecommunications company NextG Networks for their roles in the 2007 Malibu Canyon Fire, which began when three poles jointly owned by Edison and other companies snapped in high winds and sparked nearby brush.
Under the settlement, Edison and NextG admit that one of the failed power poles was overloaded with NextG telecommunications equipment when the fire started, in violation of CPUC rules, and that Edison did not act to prevent the overloading.
Edison is due to pay $37 million in total penalties, with $17 million pledged to assess its poles in Malibu Canyon and the surrounding Malibu area, replacing or repairing poles that do not meet safety requirements. The remaining $20 million will go to the State of California’s General Fund.
NextG is charged with $14.5 million in penalties. Six million dollars is set aside for inspections of the more than 60,000 poles and pole attachments owned by NextG in California. If $6 million is not enough to complete its safety audit, NextG must provide additional funds to finish the inspections, according to the CPUC. The remaining $8.5 million goes to the state’s general fund.
Both companies are required to begin inspections within 18 months, according to CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper.
“These settlements not only financially penalize two companies for wrongdoing and serve as a deterrent to future violations of CPUC rules, but they also increase safety going forward by requiring inspections, repairs, and strengthening safety factors to make poles in the Malibu area better able to withstand high winds,” said Commissioner Carla J. Peterman.
The fire, which began on Oct. 21, 2007, burned 3,836 acres, 36 vehicles and 14 structures, including Castle Kashan and the Malibu Presbyterian Church. It also damaged 19 other structures and injured three firefighters.
The settlement and planned inspections should “help mitigate any repeat of the damage caused by the 2007 fire to Malibu Canyon and the surrounding communities,” a statement by the CPUC said.
Hans Laetz, a Malibu resident who has been deeply involved in the settlement negotiations as a citizen intervener since 2010, maintained a cautiously optimistic tone about the deal. He hailed it as a victory for fire safety in Malibu, but was disappointed the planned Edison inspections stop short of poles located north of Mulholland Highway.
“[The PUC] really drew blood from Southern California Edison,” Laetz said. “But for some reason the PUC decided that the crooked poles north of Mulholland are not a problem. The poles are just as crooked and just as overloaded north of Mulholland as they are south of Mulholland.”
The Edison inspection boundary runs from Topanga Canyon Boulevard on the east to Mulholland Highway on the north and west, and the ocean on the south (shown in accompanying map).
“It covers major power lines, including specifically those in Malibu Canyon, and along Mulholland, PCH, Latigo Canyon,” Laetz said.
Representatives for Edison would not answer specific questions about the terms of the settlement. In a statement, the company promised customers that Edison shareholders, and not ratepayers, would be paying for the settlement.
“SCE believes it was in the best interest of its stakeholders to resolve the dispute and move forward with the utility’s principal mission of providing safe, reliable and affordable electric service,” Edison said in a statement.
Edison and NextG are the last companies to reach settlements stemming from the fire.
All told, damages paid by companies involved with the fire exceeded $60 million.
AT&T Mobility , Verizon Wireless and Sprint Communications Company agreed in September 2012 to pay $12 million, or $4 million each, in a settlement approved by the CPUC. None of those companies took fault for overloaded equipment. Of the $12 million settlement, $6.9 million was paid to the State of California’s General Fund. The remainder, $5.1 million, was to be spent on replacing existing wooden power poles along the 3.4 miles of lower Malibu Canyon.