Malibu Canyon phone poles

Overloaded power poles were blamed for the 2007 Malibu Canyon fire. 

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last week approved a $12 million settlement with three cellphone companies for their involvement in the cause of the 2007 Malibu Canyon fire. Almost half of the settlement will be spent on installing stronger wooden telephone poles in Malibu Canyon and a second safety project.

The fire began on Oct. 21, 2007, when three power poles alongside Malibu Canyon Road snapped during high Santa Ana winds and ignited nearby brush. The fire burned 3,836 acres, destroyed 36 vehicles and 14 structures, damaged 19 others and injured three firefighters.

Investigators for the CPUC allege that at least one of the poles that fell was illegally overloaded with telecommunications equipment. Investigators further allege that Southern California Edison and the four cellphone companies, which either jointly owned the failed power poles or paid Edison to carry equipment on the poles, later misled investigators surrounding the circumstances of the cause of the fire.

The three cellphone companies, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless, continue to deny the allegations. But the companies agreed at a meeting Thursday last week in San Francisco to pay the state $4 million each in a settlement.

“It is critical that all communications and electric facilities observe the rules about attaching their equipment and lines to utility poles,” said CPUC Commissioner Catherine J.K. Sandoval Thursday after the ruling. “These rules protect the integrity of utility systems and the communications and electric service on which businesses and families depend.”

Southern California Edison and another cellphone company, NextG, still face a trial and $74 million in fines proposed by state investigators for their role in the fire.

Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon said, “A settlement that included all the parties would have been desirable. Absent that, I view the requirement in this settlement to upgrade the safety factor of utility poles in Malibu Canyon to be essential for reducing the risk of a utility line-related fire in the region by strengthening and replacing electric poles.”

Of the $12 million settlement, $6.9 million will by paid to the State of California’s General Fund. The remainder, $5.1 million, will be spent on replacing existing wooden power poles along the 3.4 miles of lower Malibu Canyon. Another portion will be spent on an independent safety survey to study a representative sample of Southern California Edison power poles across its 50,000-square-mile service area. The intent of the study, according to the settlement, is to determine the severity of the problem with pole overloading, a practice that was blamed for a power outage in the San Gabriel Valley in Fall 2011 when a windstorm blew over more than 200 Edison power poles.

Malibu resident Hans Laetz, who ran for City Council in April, was granted citizen intervenor status in the CPUC investigation and had access to the negotiations between the companies and the CPUC.

“It would have been better to direct the entire $12 million to Malibu, to investigate the leaning, warped power poles that we see along PCH and in the mountains,” said Laetz, who added that a pole inspection program was needed for Edison’s entire service area in the Santa Monica Mountains. Laetz said he hoped such a study could be funded out of the potential $74 million in fines faced by Edison and NextG should the companies be found guilty of the charges by the CPUC.

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