Stephen Ellison

PG&E Line Suspected in Camp Fire Had Issue in 2012 Storm

An NBC Bay Area investigation has found that five PG&E towers collapsed in a storm back in 2012 on the same transmission line where a damaged tower is now suspected of causing the deadly Camp Fire.

The trouble on PG&E’s 115,000 volt Caribou-Palermo line dates back to December 2012 at a mountainside location near the border of Butte and Plumas counties, according to a PG&E official in a regulatory notice filed in July 2013 with the state Public Utilities Commission.

“To repair damage caused by a winter storm event,” Brian Cherry, then head of regulatory relations with the utility told regulators, “PG&E proposes to replace six consecutive lattice-steel towers with new towers on the Caribou-Palermo 115 Kilovolt (kV) Power Line."

He said the location was on the Plumas-Butte County border, up a slope west of Highway 70 near Pulga Road – in the vicinity of the tower that failed in the Camp fire. Cherry said the line was running on wood poles until six new so-called H-frame towers could be installed.

Other regulatory records reviewed by NBC Bay Area indicate several towers in PG&E’s system in the area date back to the early 1900’s, but the utility only recently got the go ahead to replace them.

Just this year, records show, PG&E got regulatory approval to upgrade some of those older towers in the area’s electrical transmission system.

In a regulatory filing after the Camp fire, PG&E said an aerial survey done hours after the fire broke out revealed a tower near where the fire started had suffered unspecified damage.

Dario de Ghetaldi, one of the lawyers who sued the company over the Camp fire this week, said Thursday that the previous failure of the steel towers is a red flag.

“Five transmission towers, made of steel, all collapse at the same time? It’s something we’re looking into,” he said.

“Is it the same vintage as those five? Or whether it’s a new one…or a replacement of those five?”

PG&E officials did not respond to questions about the history of the Caribou-Palermo line, the mass tower failure incident or the status of nearby upgrades approved by the Public Utilities Commission.

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