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Southern California Edison to pay $550 million in fines for involvement in five wildfires

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Southern California Edison faces more than half a billion dollars in fines and penalties for his role in five devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018, officials said this week.

The California Public Utilities Commission approved the settlement agreement with the utility during a meeting Thursday. The agreement covers fines and penalties related to the Thomas, Woolsey, Rye, Meyers and Liberty fires, which collectively burned more than 380,000 acres and destroyed thousands of homes.

Investigators with the commission’s Safety and Enforcement Division found that Southern California Edison violated state safety codes governing the design, construction and maintenance of overhead electrical power lines and communications facilities, which led to the ignition of the blazes, they said.

Under the terms of the agreement, the utility’s shareholders will pay a $110 million penalty to the California general fund and contribute $65 million toward improved safety measures.

The agreement also prevents Southern California Edison from tapping taxpayers to cover $375 million in reimbursements of expenses arising from insurance claims related to the fires.

“Thomas and Woolsey were disastrous by any definition, but all five had an impact on communities, families, local government and health and safety workers,” Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen said during the meeting. “We cannot and should not belittle the great hardship and suffering caused by these fires and by Edison’s violations.”

Southern California Edison spokeswoman Gabriela Ornelas described Friday’s settlement as “fair and reasonable” and said signing the agreement was not an admission of fault. The utility serves 15 million customers in a 50,000 square mile service area.

The agreement “leaves an additional uncertainty as the utility continues to implement its comprehensive measures to mitigate wildfire risk,” she said, citing grid hardening, greater circuit segmentation, covered conductors, insulated wires and more precise power cutoffs for public safety as examples Dimensions.

Experts have said California’s wildfires are only getting bigger and more destructive due to climate change and increasing drought. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, electrical equipment was responsible for 10% of the state’s fires in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available.

Investigators with the Public Utilities Commission said the Thomas fire, which ignited in December 2017, was started after Edison power lines in Southern California made contact in a so-called “line slap,” creating an electrical arc that spread hot and burning deposited or molten material into a receptive bed of fuel.

The fire burned through more than 280,000 acres, damaging more than 1,300 buildings and causing two deaths in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. It was then the largest wildfire in California history.

In January 2018, the Thomas Fire burn scar also contributed to debris flows that resulted in 23 additional deaths and hundreds more damaged or destroyed buildings.

“Our thoughts remain with the families and businesses affected by wildfires,” Ornelas said.

Southern California Edison has also acknowledged that its equipment was likely “linked” to the deadly 2018 Woolsey Fire, which burned down more than 1,600 buildings in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and killed three people.

Earlier this year, the California Department of Justice ruled that Edison would not be prosecuted for his role in the fire. It is considered the eighth most destructive wildfire in California history.

The three other fires described in the agreement — the Rye fire in Santa Clarita, the Liberty fire in Murrieta, and the Meyers fire in San Bernardino — all happened in December 2017. Together, they burned about 6,400 acres.

The Public Utilities Commission said Thursday’s settlement was reached under a new enforcement tool called the Administrative Consent Order, created in November 2020 as an alternative to a more formal investigative process known as an Investigation Order.

The regulator’s five-member committee approved the settlement agreement 4-1, with Commissioner Darcie Houck voting against, expressing hesitation about the new tool and wanting more time and community involvement.

“The Commission has the ability to obtain an investigation order in this case, which would provide more transparency than the administrative consent order decision,” she said at the meeting. “These fires happened four years ago, so there’s no need to rush through a settlement.”

Some stakeholders expressed similar concerns.

“One of our problems is that we can’t say if this is an appropriate punishment because we haven’t had the opportunity to be in the room and understand how they got there,” Katy Morsony, attorney for Utility Reform Network, or TURN said Friday.

TURN, a consumer rights organization, filed a letter of objection to the first draft of the agreement, published in November. Morsoney said that although improvements have been made, the group is not convinced that the adopted resolution is ideal.

“For catastrophic events of this nature, it is only appropriate to have a more comprehensive process,” she said.

In a statement accompanying the decision, the Public Utilities Commission said the new tool aligns its practices with those of other state and local law enforcement agencies and is intended to “better serve Californians through streamlined enforcement efforts.”

This month, the commission reached a similar agreement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which has been charged over its role in the Kincade fire. This fire devastated more than 77,000 acres of Northern California wine country in 2019.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-12-17/southern-california-edison-faces-550m-penalty-for-wildfires Southern California Edison to pay $550 million in fines for involvement in five wildfires

Tom Vazquez

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