UC Berkeley

PG&E Inspectors Find Hundreds of Safety Issues on Electrical Towers

PG&E’s inspections of thousands of transmission towers since the deadly Camp Fire in Butte County found more than 450 safety violations, including 59 that posed serious safety hazards, NBC Bay Area has learned.

One of the safety issues discovered in recent inspections that involved climbing the towers, was at a big oil refinery along Interstate 80 in Contra Costa county.

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit has learned that near the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo, inspectors found a corroded hook like the one that failed on a transmission tower at the ignition point of the Camp fire last year.

“Lose that hook, and the power line is down,’’ said Bob Bea, a civil engineering professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, who studies man-made disasters. Bea, who had previously worked in the oil industry, says such refinery tanks often store volatile chemicals.

“It’s a bomb – it just needs to get ignited.”

PG&E is still doing the inspections with the hope of completing them before fire season, but to date has found 59 immediate safety hazards.

“That’s an astounding, staggering number for PG&E to discover just now and report,’’ said Frank Pitre, an attorney who represents Camp wildfire victims. “The sad part is there hasn’t been enough attention being drawn to that.”

Amanda Riddle, another wildfire attorney, wonders how all the problems were missed during decades of inspections.

“For all this time, they have been saying they have been inspecting their towers…and what they have been doing clearly hasn’t been effective,” she said.

Even with all the new climbing inspections, Bea worries that the tiny, nearly invisible cracks that develop during the corrosion process may escape notice.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,’’ he said of the discovery of 59 hazards during the recent inspections. “It’s telling us that we have a system that can’t be safe.”

It is not clear whether any of the violations was on the Caribou Palermo line, where the fire broke out in November. It is currently shut down.

PG&E would not respond to questions related to what the inspections uncovered on the towers near the refinery, but did acknowledge in a statement as to having found “issues” with “insulators, connectors, structure foundation and other components” that in several cases, forced them to turn off the power to transmission lines to fix them.

Tom Long, attorney for the ratepayer watchdog group TURN, says the findings are “good news” because they may have prevented another disaster, “but bad news in that it says PG&E was not doing the inspection work it should have been doing all along and we ratepayers have been paying for.”

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) says the findings are strong evidence for his legislation to mandate state regulators set up rigorous inspection regimes for electrical transmission towers and lines.

“Because right now we leave it to the utilities,” Hill said, “and quite frankly, we can’t trust them.”

PG&E said it expects to report the full findings of its tower inspection effort as soon as next month.

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