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More Reasons to Hate PG&E—Sometimes

(Lakeport) — It may seem like going after low-hanging fruit to take a shot at PG&E these days, but there is an aspect of their multi-faceted failures that isn’t being talked about much, other than  usually just repeating the talking points coming from PG&E. I’m not an expert on how PG&E maintains the vegetation around their power lines, but I do have 15 utility poles on my 25 acre ranch which I have kept a close eye on since the recent fires began here a few years ago, and if my property is anything like an average example of their commitment to fire safety we have a serious problem that still needs to be addressed.

For at least a decade I have known that the three-phase power lines that serve my ag well pumps has been wedged into the crotch of an oak tree limb directly above a fairly busy county road, and have wondered how such an obvious problem could have gotten past dozens of inspections without anyone noticing or doing anything about it. To make matters worse, on nearly a dozen occasions I have asked various people involved with the annual tree trimming efforts to do something about this issue, with zero impact.

The inspectors and work crews came by again this year and nothing was done about it, though they did do some cutting on trees with little or no potential to fall on or grow into lines. In the past I have heard every imaginable excuse for the inaction, ranging from “if the inspector hasn’t approved it we can’t cut it”, to “Its OK, that’s an insulated line”, but this year when I asked the three guys carving-up some of my giant oak trees about it I got the “No comprende English” routine, though I strongly suspect that was just a way to make the annoying gringo go away. In case you were wondering, the state regulation is that all vegetation must be four feet minimum from residential lines, though eight feet is preferred.

At the other end of my ranch there is another three-phase line serves my neighbor’s ag well, it has two of it’s three lines constantly rubbing against the trunk of a large cottonwood tree, and has been for some time. This line stretches across Kelsey creek, a few years ago I noticed a cable laying on the ground near the power pole, and assuming it was a snapped guy wire I knew one of the nearby poles had I reached-down to grab it. As I got near it I noticed the hairs on the back of my hand began to stand-up, immediately I yanked my hand back and realized that the faint buzzing noise I was hearing was the sound of a power line shorting-out on the ground inches from my feet, and the hairs on my hand were standing up from the electricity being discharged!

I’ve had a few near death experiences in my life, including nearly walking on a downed power line while fighting a grass fire in Lakeport that a few minutes later killed firefighter Matt Black when he stepped on it, in the smoke I didn’t even know a power line was down let alone that I had walked either right over it or right next to it. Even with several other close-calls of various sorts over the years the one I think about the most is almost touching that downed line at my place-I was maybe a quarter an inch from it when I pulled-back.

The line had come down when a tree branch fell on it during a storm, so it was a very preventable problem that caused it to drop into the creek and lay across my neighbor’s driveway.  Today two lines on that same circuit have rubbed the bark off of that cottonwood tree, as they get buffeted by the winds and whatever falls out of the trees all around them-and these are uninsulated lines!

 Right under yet another three-phase line here is a young, fast growing cottonwood tree that is almost certain to touch the wires by the end of summer, though unlike the other two it is hard to spot from the road-like probably thousands of other examples in the region.

Even a layman like myself can visually confirm the fact that back in the days when PG&E did their own tree cutting the work was vastly better, its that obvious. The work being done in recent years has been almost comically bad, the stuff they cut and the stuff they leave is so random there barely seems to be any logic to it at all, and the entire operation seems geared to simply put on a show to give the impression something useful is being done. The worker-to-supervisor/observer ratio makes CalTrans look like a model of efficiency, and again the goal seems to primarily be to employ people in an effort to show some positive stats  based on man hours worked, the number of men on the crews or the miles of lines cleared.  

To really cap-off the mistakes being institutionalized at my place is the fact that a half-mile up the road is the home base of the local detachment of workers from Aeris, the contractor in charge of the job, and it is where a fleet of their trucks come and go every day- some pass twice a day right under the spot where the line is imbedded into one of my oak trees!

I’d thought about talking to someone in an office at PG&E about it, but was sort of curious to see what if any changes they would make since the fires began, in terms of effectiveness I’ve seen very little improvement. Looking around the neighborhood I have seen a number of other places that are pretty stretchy looking too, especially old power poles that need replacing, some are so bad they wouldn’t even make decent firewood-not that you would ever want to burn those creosote-soaked logs.

As usual, Aeris left behind the slash from the trimming, which totaled at my place a pile the size of a small house, but this year after griping about it to one of their crews they came back a week later and collected the one small pile next to the road, and left the rest to get swept downstream in the next big storm. In talking to the Aeris crew it came out that they did not trim around three phase lines-according to the workers I talked to, so I called PG&E’s AG account rep and asked about it, as it was the first time I had heard this excuse.

It was surprising to hear a different tune this time, as instead of the usual boilerplate BS they said they would sent someone out for a look-see, TODAY! What the lineman who arrived told me was even more surprising, everything downstream of the last PG&E power pole was the responsibility of the consumer, even if the line was first going to an AT&T pole as it was in my case. The lineman then took it upon himself to use his bucket lift to quickly remedy the issue, and did a fine job of clearing a wide berth for the offending line, which should keep it safe for several years to come.

The line across the creek was another matter, it’s solution involves removing a very large tree and the lines will have to be dropped before it can be done, this will be a considerable undertaking and will take approval of the higher-ups. The lineman said it was a real issue as those lines were uninsulated and could hit each other, the other problem was there was a lot of deadwood in that tree that was certain to fall on both those lines and another as well-this could not be ignored and this line ran between two PG&E poles so they owned it.

So next time you hear some chirpy PG&E spokesperson rattle-off some impressive sounding stats on how committed they are to not burning your home down, just remember in the real world the picture is oftentimes not nearly so rosy, and a lot of motion and money spent does not always translate into progress-or safety! Its also important to note that when PG&E says it checks every inch of every line every time they do a safety shut-down during fire season(s) that isn’t true, and its doubtful many consumers know that or that they are in some cases responsible for the line clearance themselves-PG&E definitely has some work to do in getting that info out.

Its also worth mentioning that whatever the spokespeople say, its the linemen who know whats going on and who can get things done, in my case I was lucky to have had someone there who took some initiative and got most of the problem handled quickly without a lot of hassle or BS of the variety you generally get when dealing with the residential account reps. So PG&E gets a “C” grade on this, bad form for allowing serious safety issues to go unacknowledged or undetected for so long, but an impressive response from both their lineman and AG account rep.

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