Pacific Gas and Electric’s analysis of what caused a rotted pole to fail in Danville revealed several breakdowns in the process the company has relied on, for decades, to keep more than a half-million at-risk poles in service.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit obtained the confidential report under the state’s Public Records Act. It includes photos of the broken pole that fell down in July – sending a live electrical line plunging into a backyard pool -- and documents the findings of prior inspections.
“That rot was so thorough, it looked like what was left of the inside of the pole you could crumble with your hand,” said former CPUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval, who specialized in pole safety during her six year tenure as a regulator.
PG&E says its upgrading inspections and making other changes in light of the findings. However, Sandoval says the company should have acted far earlier, since it has acknowledged knowing since 1989 that - Cellon gas - the treatment it and other utilities had long relied on to protect against rot, was largely ineffective.
Rather than replace the Cellon treated poles, the utility focused on periodic inspections and spot treatments to fortify them against rot. The Danville analysis, however, shows the danger of relying on that strategy.
Records indicate that crews twice declared that the Danville pole had “100%” wood strength, apparently without digging completely around the pole to look for rot because a fence blocked access.
State regulations require poles to be completely inspected around the entire base, where the wood is most vulnerable to rot.
But PG&E says its policy did not tell crews what to do when an obstacle prevented digging 360 degrees around the pole base. Absent the specific guidance, the utility says the Danville checks complied with its standard.
“Inspections where a full dig is not possible still follow the testing procedure, and are deemed complete inspections,” the utility said, adding that it is changing that policy.
But Sandoval wonders how the utility had such a questionable policy in the first place.
“They don’t get to just call something ‘complete,’ which is incomplete,” she said. “That’s gaslighting, that’s ‘what is down is up’ – and that’s wrong.”
That was not the only problem with the inspection efforts that the company acknowledged to NBC Bay Area.
In a statement, it says during the 2015 inspection, the rot would have been so advanced that it would have been easily found had the crew hit the pole with a sounding hammer.
PG&E blames “apparent human error” for the failure to find the rot with the hammer test.
Two years later, PG&E’s internal analysis found, a neighbor reported the pole was “really leaning over” in his backyard. The responding lineman declared the pole “all safe,’’ apparently without checking further.
In light of the findings, the utility says it’s making “science-based” changes to its inspection program, bolstering training and tightening quality control to guard against human error.
PG&E says replacing all half-million poles could cost $10 billion, and reinforcing them could take years. So for now, it is focusing its checks on those at highest risk among 30,000 aging poles in high fire risk areas, especially ones that had not been recently inspected.
But Sandoval says a piecemeal approach is not enough, given the extreme risk posed by the half million aging poles, with many already four decades old – the age when PG&E itself says they become vulnerable to sudden failure.
“That pole was by far was the worst pole I’ve ever seen on the inside, and this is why I’m really scared,” she said. “We have poles in a mid-life crisis and no plan.”