California Dolphin: statewide California news

Utility poles alarm experts in wake of Wine Country infernos

SAN JOSE — State regulators and other experts, alarmed by infernos in the North Bay Wine Country and elsewhere, are attempting to determine whether PG&E and other utilities must undertake a comprehensive, up-to-date survey of utility poles in California.
A tour on Monday of utility poles in several South Bay locations sparked concerns about the safety of the facilities and whether PG&E and other utility companies such as AT&T and Comcast have properly maintained the facilities. Yet experts also believe the state Public Utilities Commission must be more aggressive in its efforts to supervise utility pole repairs and maintenance.
“The commission needs to be much more vigorous about enforcement, the PUC has a lot of tools it can use to step up enforcement,” said Catherine Sandoval, a former PUC commissioner and a Santa Clara University law professor. “I also support the idea of a utility poll census.”
PG&E’s flawed record keeping and shoddy maintenance were deemed to be among the primary causes of a fatal explosion of natural gas in San Bruno in 2010 that killed eight people. In the case of the electricity and utility poles, improved record keeping might be beneficial.
“It would be very helpful to have comprehensive digital records regarding these utility poles,” said Michael Picker, a PUC commissioner and the president of the powerful state agency.
Leaning poles, poles propped up by pieces of wood, wires that could contact electrical facilities, were all pointed out during a utility pole tour as safety hazards that could cause fires or trigger falling debris.
“Poorly maintained poles and attached electric and communication wires have tragically caused substantial property damage from fires and loss of life in California,” according to the PUC. “Unauthorized attachments also overload poles and put utility workers and consumers at risk.”
The utility pole tour was used to point out safety problems that are being considered as part of a proceeding by the state PUC to determine what steps are needed to improve electrical pole and equipment safety.
“We have to find ways to get safer,” Commissioner Picker said. “The question is how do we do that and how much will it cost.”
In one San Jose neighborhood, wires from a utility pole dropped into ivy and caused a fire in April. On Monday, the pole, located in the 2500 block of Booksin Avenue in San Jose, could be seen leaning at a noticeable angle.
“This one does looks extreme, but in my personal opinion, this pole is safe,” said Mike Swanson, PG&E’s restoration and compliance director, when asked about the tilted pole. “It has been tested every 10 years starting in 2006. While it may look bad from a leaning standpoint, this pole is not in danger of falling.”
In Campbell, on Capri Drive, the tour took note of what’s called a “buddy pole” arrangement in which a small poll and a 2-by-4 piece of lumber are used to attempt to brace the primary pole. The tour also viewed a thicket of utility wires that former commissioner Sandoval suggested could be hazardous.
“This can potentially cause a fire,” Sandroval said, referring to the potential hazard of one set of wires drooping into the electricity wires.
State investigators are attempting to determine what role PG&E’s wires and equipment might have played in the lethal North Bay wildfires.
The PUC also scheduled a public forum in San Jose at the Santa Clara County main building to discuss the issues related to utility maintenance and surveys. The field trip and the forum are part of a process leading up to a final decision by the state agency about the utility pole safety issue.
“We are getting close to taking action in this proceeding,” Picker said.

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