Sunday, July 26, 2009 | SDG&E has a long history of putting profit ahead of the public good. Now, the company that fought to return record profits from low-cost energy contracts to its shareholders instead of ratepayers during the California energy crisis has a radical, untested idea to prevent backcountry wildfire.

The very same people who got caught issuing unnecessary Stage 3 power alerts with plenty of power to spare in 2007 are forging ahead with a plan to kill the juice proactively.

This time, SDG&E claims that what might be days-long blackouts are absolutely necessary to preempt deadly wildfires caused by its lines. If SDG&E has its way, more than 60,000 homes could be plunged into darkness when winds reach a certain speed and brush moisture drops to certain levels.

Here’s what’s missing from SDG&’s expensive ad campaign: power lines themselves weren’t the problem in the horrific firestorms of 2007. The problem was the utility’s failure to maintain them.

The details are in the “after action” report conducted by the Consumer Protection and Safety Division of the California Public Utilities Commission.

In the case of the Guejito fire, the report concluded that minimum inspection requirements were violated. In the case of the Witch Fire, inspectors discovered SDG&E infrastructure “did not have minimum separation as required” by existing regulations.

The cause of the Rice Fire in Fallbrook was especially flagrant. On July 18, 2007, an SDG&E contractor reported a sycamore tree growing into wires and ordered it be trimmed. SDG&E ignored the order. Three months later, a falling branch from the very same tree touched off the Rice Fire.

Because SDG&E is on the financial hook for the damage it caused by negligently failing to maintain its system, its “risk management” experts have come up with the shutoff plan.

As currently crafted, the plan would shift liability from the utility to taxpayers. When SDG&E decides to cut power, if homes should burn or people die in one of the 97 percent of fires not caused by power lines, taxpayers, not the utility, could be forced to foot the bill!

Given the choice between doing right by the public and protecting its bottom line, the utility is, as always, following the money.

SDG&E is choosing to bring unnecessary grief to some of our region’s most vulnerable populations: seniors who are dependant on life-sustaining medical devices and refrigerated medicine, people with disabilities who can’t afford highly-specialized care during a shutoff and struggling ranchers and agricultural businesses that, in this economy, don’t have thousands of dollars for specialized generators.

SDG&E’s simplistic and hostile rhetoric scapegoats impacted communities and deliberately distracts from the real problem: Had SDG&E followed existing state regulations back in 2007, homes would still be standing.

The utility should be garnering public support for tested and proven fire prevention measures like undergrounding, better vegetation management, swapping safer steel poles in place of wooden poles, wider spacing between lines to prevent arcing and increased inspections. Instead, it’s crunched the numbers and determined that it’s cheaper to cut power.

Here’s what else is missing from the utility’s impressive public relations blitz: Had the shutoff plan been in place in 2007, it would not have prevented the 2007 firestorms. Cal Fire data shows that communities would have been shutoff from power after the start of the fires.

This is among the many reasons Cal Fire, the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services won’t embrace the plan.

Sadly, SDG&E isn’t the only entity in the region selling out residents. The Union-Tribune has reported sordid tales of SDG&E contractors and leaders of SDG&E -funded community groups failing to disclose financial ties to the utility while testifying in support of the shutoff plan before the CPUC.

The people opposed to the shutoff plan don’t have the oil industry’s millions to buy influence and manufacture a PR campaign. Still, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, the San Diego County Office of Education, numerous water districts, telephone companies, cable television companies, people with disabilities, consumer protection groups and thousands of residents are united in our opposition to this poorly-crafted gamble.

Dianne Jacob is the Chairwoman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. She is chair of the San Diego County Task Force on Fire Protection and Emergency Medical Services and chair of the Unified Disaster Council.

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