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California criticizes utility over outages after windstorm

Regulators say some Southern California Edison equipment didn't meet standards and some evidence wasn't preserved after the fall barrage. The utility cites the 'dynamic situation' that confronted it.

February 02, 2012|By Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times
  • A Southern California Edison employee works to reattach wires in Arcadia after the windstorm.
A Southern California Edison employee works to reattach wires in Arcadia… (Arkasha Stevenson / Los…)

State regulators on Wednesday slammed Southern California Edison for outages that left nearly a quarter of a million customers without power —- some for more than a week — during a windstorm late last year.

In a preliminary report, the California Public Utilities Commission concluded that some equipment, including 21 wooden poles and 17 cables used to stabilize them, did not meet safety standards.

Regulators also criticized Edison for what they said was a slow response to restore power to residents and businesses.

The report comes after weeks of complaints by San Gabriel Valley residents and community leaders over the scope and duration of the power outrages caused by the winds on the night of Nov. 30 and in the early hours of Dec. 1.

Officials also said the utility failed to preserve evidence needed to investigate the causes of the massive power outage.

The windstorm, which weather experts called the strongest in about a decade, toppled hundreds of trees and blacked out long stretches of bustling commercial corridors and traffic signals. The barrage of wind also created an increase in patients at hospitals, with emergency room staff seeing elderly people who had fallen in the dark or had suffered anxiety attacks.

The PUC said Edison failed to preserve some physical evidence that could have given investigators a clearer sense of what caused the problems.

Had investigators had access to evidence "destroyed" by the utility, the report said, they could have found "more instances where SCE failed to comply" with rules regarding the preservation of evidence, and where such "noncompliance directly resulted in unnecessary damage to facilities and prolonged outages."

The report did not suggest that Edison destroyed evidence as part of a coverup but urged the utility not to do so in the future.

Jennifer Manfre, a spokeswoman for Edison, said the utility was operating in a "dynamic situation" after an unusually potent storm. She also said some of the poles cited as evidence are co-owned with telecommunication companies.

"We were very focused on the safe restoration of the system," she said. "We were preserving the poles to the extent feasible given the circumstances of the event.... Crews were working incredibly hard."

Many of the power outages occurred after trees or branches fell and made contact with or toppled wires or wooden poles. The report also found that Edison's records cited a large number of outages for which the cause was not known.

The windstorm generated gusts that pushed 100 mph. Meteorologists described the winds as a mutation of typical Santa Anas, which are warmer. Because these winds were relatively cold, they sank faster after climbing over the San Gabriel Mountains, then steam-rolled over neighborhoods.

Many affected residents complained about the time it took for Edison to restore power. But the utility replied that crews were having problems reaching affected neighborhoods because of downed trees. Between Nov. 30 and Dec. 7, almost 200,000 calls related to windstorm damage were made to Edison.

According to the commission's report, after Dec. 1, Edison stopped responding to individual "downed line" calls when locations were already known to be without power. But regulators said the utility's failure to explain this to the public led to a perception that Edison was "not responding to safety issues."

In the end, regulators concluded that the utility made some procedural decisions that caused it to take too long to restore power. They added that some of Edison's estimates for restoring power for some neighborhoods were inaccurate and "overly optimistic," which caused frustration.

"We know customers were disappointed," Manfre said. "We are learning this lesson."

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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