By Russell Gold
PG&E Corp. conducted an unusual inspection of the power line that sparked the deadliest wildfire in California history just weeks before it failed, a step the utility has said it normally takes only when it suspects a potential safety problem.
The disclosure that workers climbed portions of the Caribou-Palermo line last fall, which PG&E noted in a recent court filing, suggests the company had concerns about the condition of its lines before the Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.
The Nov. 8 fire is now being investigated by state and local authorities, which could ultimately lead to criminal charges against PG&E and its executives.
A PG&E spokeswoman said the company performed inspections of about 80 towers on the Caribou-Palermo line before the Camp Fire as part of a larger effort to determine "the condition of its aging transmission lines." She declined to reveal the results.
PG&E lawyers first publicly mentioned the company had done the inspections in a July 31 filing in federal court, following an order by U.S. District Judge William Alsup to respond to a Wall Street Journal article on maintenance of its power lines, paragraph by paragraph.
In its disclosure, PG&E said the inspections occurred between September and November last year and involved climbing the transmission towers. Before the Camp Fire, which spurred the company to conduct more exhaustive reviews of its power grid, it was unusual for PG&E to climb its transmission towers to inspect their condition, as well as the condition of bolts, hooks and other hardware.
The results of the inspections were turned over to the California attorney general's office, the Butte County district attorney's office, and the California Public Utilities Commission, all of which are investigating the cause of the Camp Fire, according to PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo.
Ms. Paulo said the inspections didn't include the steel transmission tower where a line fell from a hook and sparked the Camp Fire. The closest tower inspected was more than 50 towers away, a distance of roughly 7 miles, she said.
Even before these inspections, PG&E had placed Caribou-Palermo on its "worst performing" list several times in annual reports that tally unexpected outages. These reports were sent to the regional electric grid operator, the California Independent System Operator.
California fire investigators have concluded PG&E equipment sparked the Camp Fire, and the company has said its equipment was the likely cause.
A grand jury in Butte County, which includes Paradise, has been empaneled to examine the evidence. The company and its executives could potentially face criminal charges in connection with the case, the state attorney general's office has said.
Asked if these inspection records were central to his investigation, Mike Ramsey, the Butte County district attorney, said: "All records are important. Some records are more important than others."
The California attorney general's office and the Public Utilities Commission declined to comment.
PG&E didn't mention the inspections in a lengthy federal court filing at the end of 2018 in which it described ground-based, aerial, infrared and lidar surveys of the line back to 2009. A spokeswoman declined to say why.
Before the Camp Fire, PG&E said in the July 31 court filing, it conducted climbing inspections of its transmission towers "in response to specific 'triggering' events," such as defects identified by inspection and component failure.
In 2010, a consultant hired by PG&E suggested that because of the number of older towers, the company should consider climbing them once every three to five years. PG&E didn't follow up on the suggestion.
In an internal presentation from 2017, PG&E estimated that its transmission towers were an average of 68 years old, and the oldest were 108 years old.
This presentation also outlined PG&E's plans, in 2018, to develop a method of prioritizing which towers represented the highest risk to the public and should be replaced.
What PG&E knew about the condition of its aging lines -- including the 98-year-old Caribou-Palermo line that carried power from hydroelectric power stations in the Sierra Nevada to more populous regions to the south -- is expected to be carefully scrutinized by investigators.
Most of the towers that PG&E inspected in September, October and November were in the southern portion of the Caribou-Palermo line, after it emerges from the Feather River Canyon and crosses flatter, more accessible terrain around Oroville, Calif.
In the weeks after the Camp Fire, PG&E restarted the Caribou-Palermo line. After further inspections, it decided to turn it off permanently.
PG&E sought bankruptcy protection in January, citing $30 billion in fire-related liabilities, in one of the largest corporate reorganization cases in years.
The embattled San Francisco-based utility, which provides electric and gas service to one in 20 Americans, has said it intends to file a restructuring plan by Sept. 9.
Write to Russell Gold at firstname.lastname@example.org