Pacific Gas and Electricity knew power lines in Northern California could fail and spark potentially dangerous wildfires, but the company delayed repairs for years before the massive blaze that killed 85 people, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation.
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The natural gas company identified parts that needed a repair on its transmission lines to prevent “structure failure resulting [in] conductor on ground causing fire,” the newspaper said in a report released Wednesday, citing a 2017 PG&E internal presentation. The company also found — through PG&E's communications with federal officials, which were obtained via a public records request — that dozens of steel towers needed to be replaced because they were still being used beyond their life expectancy.
Despite the information it had, PG&E delayed repairs on old transmission lines, ranking the upgrades as low priority compared to other work like substation upgrades, per the Journal, which said it reviewed federal regulatory filings.
Wednesday’s investigation by the Journal comes months after the Camp Fire scorched parts of Northern California and destroyed the town of Paradise. Officials said the fire killed 85 people, making it “the deadliest and most destructive” wildfire in the state’s history.
In a May, fire officials said the deadly November 2018 blaze was triggered by PG&E's high-voltage electrical transmission line called Caribou-Palermo.
“After a very meticulous and thorough investigation, CAL FIRE has determined that the Camp Fire was caused by electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) located in the Pulga area,” officials said in a news release.
A month later, the utility company announced it would retire the line after finding serious problems. A Journal report published in February also alleged repairs on the line were delayed for more than five years.
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The company added that full or spot repairs have been done on structures that were deemed high priority fixes.
“We understand and recognize the serious concerns raised about our infrastructure,” PG&E’s Vice President of the Community Wildfire Safety Program Sumeet Singh said. “We acknowledge that while we’ve made progress, we have more work to do.”
PG&E also filed for bankruptcy protection in January, claiming it's facing more than $30 billion in fire-related liabilities. The company has received hundreds of complaints from at least 5,600 fire victims.