PG&E Inspections Reveal 250K Problems, Trigger Shutdown of Power Line

Pacific Gas and Electric officials announced Wednesday that crews found 1,200 critical threats and took more than 250,000 corrective actions in response to post-Camp Fire safety inspections, leading to the permanent shutdown of the line tied to the fire and the replacement of another transmission line in Marin County to ease the wildfire danger.

The company announced Wednesday it has nearly completed the ramped-up inspections it began in December, a month after the November conflagration that destroyed the town of Paradise. The entire inspection and vegetation clearance effort is now expected to cost more than $2.4 billion, officials say.

PG&E says one of every five of the 100 most dangerous transmission problems were uncovered on the 56-mile-long, 115,000-volt Caribou-Palermo line in Butte County, where a worn hook snapped on a transmission tower at the origin of the Camp Fire.

Sumeet Singh, who oversees the wildfire safety program for the utility, said the decision to permanently shut down that line came after the discovery of a “significant number” of “unacceptable” dangers on the line, which serves about 1,000 customers. The company has hired Exponent, an outside firm, to study the problems found on the line.

“We did find wear in some of the mechanical hardware and other structures and that led to our decision to deenergize that line,” Singh said.

According to PG&E, the inspections of its transmission towers triggered 53,000 “corrective actions,” including 100 so serious it had to act immediately, and another 4,000 that its rules require be fixed in three months. The company has previously reported such findings to the state as potential regulatory violations.

On its vast, lower-voltage distribution network, the company found far more issues -- 207,000 problems on poles and other structures that required action in high fire risk areas, with 1,000 that posed critical and immediate threats. The company acknowledged that, as of Wednesday, work is not finished on 30 of those immediate hazards.

Inspectors separately uncovered 3,000 safety problems in the 222 substations in high fire zones, with 100 immediate safety threats already repaired, the company says.

It is not clear how many of the more than 263,000 corrective actions constitute regulatory violations, but at least 5,000 fall into a class of findings significant enough to merit potential regulatory penalties.

PG&E critics have questioned why previous inspections failed to find the kinds of problems it has now uncovered.

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit reported earlier that PG&E had not conducted climbing inspections on the Caribou Palermo lines for more than a decade, and the company discounted the wildfire risk posed by wooden poles that had been installed in place of five aging steel structures collapsed on the line in the winter of 2012.

PG&E has said its earlier efforts had not been focused on wildfire safety but on general regulatory compliance.

While he did not go into detail, Singh said the transmission inspections found other worn hooks, like the one blamed for the Camp Fire, as well as corroded steel on its towers and unspecified foundation vulnerabilities in other parts of its transmission system in its inspections of high fire threat areas.

Singh said based on inspection findings, PG&E is replacing the Alto-Ignacio-Sausalito transmission line that runs across trails in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in Marin, after crews uncovered high priority problems with 10 of its 11 towers. Trail closures there started this month.

“We have a lot more work to do,” Singh said of efforts to harden PG&E’s system against wildfires and climate change. “The threat is real and is growing. We are going to continue to adapt. We are going to take action. We are not going to wait.”

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