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SoCal Edison destroyed downed poles before inspection

A state safety investigation finds that of the 248 utility poles that toppled in a 2011 windstorm, at least 21 had previous damage. Most were not available to be analyzed, the report says.

January 15, 2013|By Joe Piasecki, Los Angeles Times
  • Nearly a quarter of a million Southern California Edison customers were without power, some for a full week, after a windstorm toppled utility poles in fall 2011. Above, a downed pole in Temple City.
Nearly a quarter of a million Southern California Edison customers were… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

A state probe into the widespread power outages caused by a furious 2011 windstorm was unable to determine whether toppled utility poles met safety standards because Southern California Edison destroyed most of them before they could be inspected.

The winds that roared through the San Gabriel Valley knocked down hundreds of utility poles, snapped cables and uprooted scores of trees, leaving nearly a quarter of a million Edison customers without power, some for a full week.

In a report released Monday, the California Public Utilities Commission found that at least 21 poles were unstable because of termite destruction, dry rot or other damage before tumbling over in wind gusts of up to 120 mph on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 2011.

But more than 75% of the 248 Edison poles that were knocked down in the storm were destroyed by the utility before they could be inspected, a violation of commission rules.

"At the onset of [power] restoration efforts, preservation of failed poles was not made a priority by Southern California Edison," the report says.

Of the 248 poles that failed, partial segments of only about 60 poles were collected and delivered for analysis by commission engineers — the remaining poles were "discarded by SCE staff," according to the report.

Efforts to reconstruct downed poles, many of them sliced into segments smaller than 10 inches, "were immensely hindered by the nature of SCE's collection and cataloging methodology," investigators reported.

Edison workers scattered small pole segments in various collection bins, "making it nearly impossible to determine which failed pole they belonged to," according to investigators.

A spokesman for the utility declined to comment on the report, saying the utility was in the process of formulating a statement.

Commission investigators also found that at least 17 wire pole support systems did not meet safety standards.

The report calls on Edison to update its emergency response procedures and test them on a yearly basis.

Officials will consider formal enforcement actions, including financial penalties, if Edison does not comply.

In a statement Monday, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) — who represents Pasadena, South Pasadena, San Marino and other San Gabriel Valley cities — called for "immediate action" to ensure the issues raised in the report would not recur.

"This report confirms that by following such regulations and by asking for mutual assistance, power could have been restored more quickly," Chu said.

Former Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, who until recently represented part of the affected area, said the report "confirms what everyone who lived through the windstorm knew from personal experience, that Edison was not prepared and public safety and consumers suffered as a result."

State Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) said the report raises fears that Edison equipment might sustain similar damage in future disasters.

"I am concerned that service and safety doesn't seem to be their priority," said Liu, who is married to California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey.

The report comes less than a year after an Edison-commission study determined the utility had inadequate plans in place for emergencies and communicating with the public. The study, by Maryland-based Davies Consulting, also said the utility could have shortened power restoration time by one day or more by doing a better job of tracking and preparing for bad weather.

At the same time, the consultant commended Edison for having adequate staffing and managing a response that left no workers or customers injured.

joe.piasecki@latimes.com

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