Where's the justice?
Edison gets slap on the wrist for poor performance during devastating windstorm
By John Grula 02/13/2013
On Jan. 14, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) released a long-delayed final report on the performance of investor-owned Southern California Edison (SCE) during the severe windstorm that struck Pasadena and surrounding communities on the night of Nov. 30/Dec. 1, 2011. During the storm, more than 440,000 SCE customers (households and businesses) lost power which, in some cases, was not restored for more than a week. The black-out rate in the San Gabriel Valley areas served by SCE approached 100 percent.
SCE’s windstorm performance was so bad that the CPUC launched an investigation shortly after the storm ended. In stark contrast, the CPUC did not investigate community-owned Pasadena Water and Power, which came out of the storm smelling like a rose (so to speak). Even though Pasadena was ground zero for the most destructive wind gusts during the storm, only about 10 percent of its customers lost power, and nearly all of those who did had it restored within a few days.
Almost exactly one year ago, the CPUC issued a scathing preliminary report that found, among other things, that at least 20 of the more than 200 SCE power poles that were blown down or badly damaged during the storm were overloaded with cables and equipment. This means pole overloading was a primary cause of why so many SCE poles went down or were damaged during the storm. It is also a violation of state law subject to potential penalties.
The final CPUC report issued Jan. 14 was equally critical of SCE and also admonished the utility for destroying crucial evidence. In a Jan. 15 story in the Pasadena Star-News, Temple City Councilman Tom Chavez was quoted saying, “I am especially disappointed in the lack of preservation of evidence by SCE, which not only hindered the investigation, but could have helped in determining how to avoid future accidents.” In a Jan. 16 editorial, the newspaper stated that “so much evidence was in fact destroyed that investigators were only able to fully reconstruct five power poles out of many dozens they had wanted to see.”
So SCE was, at the very least, guilty of pole overloading and destruction of evidence. Both are illegal, right? But other than reporting these violations of the law, what did the CPUC do? Instead of penalizing Edison, it made six “recommendations” to SCE that included updating its emergency procedures, following a training schedule and testing its emergency response plan with a full-scale exercise on an annual basis. But these are all after-the-fact actions that have nothing to do with the illegal acts of pole overloading and the destruction of evidence. Where’s the justice in this? People and businesses suffered mightily because of SCE’s failures, but so far the utility has been given a free pass. According to a Jan. 20 newspaper report, CPUC officials have said they “will consider formal enforcement action and possible monetary penalties should SCE not comply satisfactorily with the problems identified in its report.” Don’t hold your breath.
The final CPUC report released on Jan. 14 was supposed to have been made public in early August (according to CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper in April). Why the long delay? Chavez blames the destruction of evidence for hindering the investigation. His point is well taken. But is it also possible the CPUC dragged its feet because it wanted more time for the public outrage over SCE’s lousy performance to subside, thereby decreasing the possibility that people would notice the CPUC did not throw the book at SCE?
This raises a further question: Why did the CPUC treat SCE with kid gloves? It is pertinent to note that Michael R. Peevey, who has been the president of the CPUC for the last 10 years, is a former president of Edison International and SCE, and served as a senior executive there from 1984 to 1995. This revolving door situation casts grave doubt on Mr. Peevey’s ability to adjudicate issues with SCE without any bias or conflict of interest. Mr. Peevey is also compromised by the fact that SCE, its affiliates and employees have been major contributors to the campaign coffers of Peevey’s wife, Democratic state Sen. Carol Liu of La Cañada Flintridge.
Finally, Mr. Peevey’s reluctance to penalize SCE for breaking the law may also have something to do with his acute awareness of the current problems Edison is having with its San Onofre nuclear power station on the San Diego County coast. Equipment failures at this plant may also be the result of SCE malfeasance. Repair costs and possible monetary penalties could approach $1 billion.
Nevertheless, until SCE is punished for breaking the law, we will continue to have more power outage disasters like the one San Gabriel Valley residents were forced to endure in December 2011.
John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.