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What one old tower says about Pacific Gas & Electric’s lax safety culture

by Jill Cowan, New York Times |

Pacific Gas & Electric has faced increased heat from regulators and outrage from consumers who have watched the state’s largest utility file for bankruptcy protection, then say that its equipment probably started the deadly Camp Fire in Butte County, California.

San Francisco is exploring a public takeover, and various financial stakeholders in the company have circled as complex bankruptcy negotiations start. But how did PG&E get here?

This week, my colleagues published a piece detailing how the company has overlooked risks in favor of its bottom line over the years. And nothing explains it better than one very old tower in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I asked Ivan Penn, a New York Times business reporter based here in Los Angeles, to explain how they got the story:

* * * * *

After the latest wave of wildfires in which Pacific Gas & Electric has been implicated, Peter Eavis, James Glanz and I were assigned to take a deep look at a persistent question: What kind of safety culture has PG&E built?

I am an energy reporter, Peter is a financial reporter in New York, and Jim is a veteran investigative reporter. Each of us brought pieces of the puzzle to the table, and one stood out: Tower 27/222, a 99-year-old transmission tower suspected of causing the 2018 Camp Fire, the worst wildfire in California history. A source pointed us to one document in particular, a form filed with federal regulators in which PG&E noted that the “useful life” of such towers expired at 75 years.

The utility kept Tower 27/222 in operation despite warnings about aging equipment along the line where it stood, storms that knocked down five deteriorating PG&E structures in the area, and the threat posed by powerful winds akin to the Santa Anas of Southern California.

We conducted dozens of interviews and pored over thousands of pages of documents and court depositions taken from PG&E employees who recounted how supervisors ignored concerns and warnings about vulnerabilities of the system and its equipment.

It wasn’t a one-of-a-kind incident with PG&E. And it wasn’t just one side of the company.

Explosions in PG&E’s gas pipeline system have also been deadly, and practices in that part of its business resulted in a felony conviction.

But wildfires associated with the company have been especially devastating, including the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people. Among them was Andrew Downer, an amputee who died on his porch with his service dog when no one could reach him.

“There are days it’s very hard to get up in the morning,” his partner, Iris Natividad, told us.

Over and over, the reporting showed that practices at PG&E were driven by the company’s focus on its bottom line. The question now is how its safety culture can be remade.