(ANTIMEDIA) Sonoma County, CA — A massive energy conglomerate with a history of negligence known to cause extensive environmental damage has now been implicated in the destructive fires currently plaguing Northern California.
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At least twenty-three people have died and hundreds have been reported missing in the fires, which had burned 100,000 acres as of Monday. And Pacific Gas & Electric, a powerful, politically entrenched power provider, is denying emerging claims that its faulty power lines could be to blame.
Mercury News, a northern California outlet, reported Monday evening that at just around the same time the very first fires were being reported in Sonoma County, emergency dispatchers also fielded reports of electrical failures and explosions:
“As the first reports came in Sunday night of numerous fires that would grow into one of the most destructive wildfire disasters in California history, emergency dispatchers in Sonoma County received multiple calls of power lines falling down and electrical transformers exploding.”
Starting at 9:22 pm, dispatchers sent fire crews to 10 different locations in a 90 minute period “to respond to 911 calls and other reports of sparking wires and problems with the county’s electrical system amid high winds.”
Though accidents and arson have also been listed as potential causes for the fires, Mercury News notes that the reports of infrastructure failures call into question “how well [PG&E] maintained its equipment in the area and whether it adequately cut back trees from power lines to reduce fire risk — as required by state law.”
The company, which enjoyed a veritable monopoly in many parts of northern California for a century — and uses the public’s money to lobby regulators — has a history of culpability in wildfires and other destructive episodes. The state’s Public Utilities Commission determined PG&E was responsible for the 2015 Butte County fire in Amador County. It was fined $8.3 million for failing to maintain a power line that sparked the fire, and Cal Fire is still seeking $90 million in firefighting costs. There are over 1,000 lawsuits against the company.
The company was previously found guilty of 739 counts of negligence and fined over $30 million for its role in a fire in Nevada County in 1994. Trees had touched high-voltage wires, which sparked the blaze. Prosecutors eventually found that “PG&E had diverted nearly $80 million from its tree-cutting programs into profits,” Mercury News noted.
The utility was also fined over a billion dollars after it failed to maintain a natural gas line in San Bruno, CA, that eventually exploded, killing eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
Frank Pitre, a Burlingame-based attorney who sued on behalf of the victims of the 2015 fire, says he has already started fielding testimony from residents who saw equipment failures this time around. Pitre told Mercury News residents have told him “they saw transformers exploding and downed wires sparking in their neighborhoods before they went up in flames.”
“This is very definitely on people’s radar of what caused a number of fires to break out all at once,” Pitre said.“If downed wires are deemed the cause of the fire, PG&E could be strictly liable for the cost of damages.”
Even so, Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, was clear that the exact cause of the fires has not been determined. Though he ruled out lightning, he did not rule out arson due to the fact that the fires started around the same time. He also noted the role high winds played.
Similarly, PG&E blamed the winds, though they acknowledge their lack of maintenance on power lines. Company spokesman Matt Nauman said in a statement:
“These destructive winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay,” he added. “In some cases, we have found instances of wires down, broken poles and impacted infrastructure. Where those have occurred, we have reported them to the CPUC and CalFire. Our thoughts are with all those individuals who were impacted by these devastating wildfires.”
Nauman called claims that PG&E is to blame “highly speculative.”
Despite the lack of conclusive evidence at this point, the company’s history of negligence and past role in causing serious disasters should not be overlooked. And despite the fines it has been forced to pay on multiple occasions, the company continues to exert powerful influence over lawmakers. PG&E spent over $1.6 million on lobbying efforts in 2017, alone, hiring multiple firms to do their bidding.
These efforts focused on the federal level, but the company has also spent vast sums to influence California’s political process, as well. As OC Weekly reported in 2015:
“The top political contributor was Pacific Gas & Electric, followed by Sempra Energy, parent of San Diego Gas & Electric, and Edison International, the parent of Southern California Edison. Together, the state’s three major utilities spent $105.3 million on political contributions, general lobbying and PUC lobbying over the years examined.”
The PUC approves rate hikes, and, unsurprisingly, PG&E and other energy companies have a tendency to hike prices at the expense of the consumer (unsurprisingly, SoCalGas is responsible for massive disasters and its parent company also exerts excessive political influence). PG&E has also invested significant resources in policies that would protect their monopoly.
Further, a separate investigation found the company guilty of secret communications between PG&E and the PUC, highlighting the futility of public agencies’ efforts to protect the public when they are privately colluding with demonstrably corrupt companies.
Whether or not PG&E contributed to the devastating fires currently plaguing California, this political relationship should not continue to go unchallenged.
Update: ABC is now reporting that an anonymous PG&E lineman believes the power lines may be to blame, though he also blamed customers for their resistance to cutting back vegetation.