For anyone who complained about returning from Labor Day to a pile of work, consider the kind of week the San Diego Gas & Electric public-relations people just had.
On Sept. 2, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) released a report that said SDG&E failed to properly maintain power lines suspected in starting three of last year's catastrophic wildfires in San Diego County. The report also accused utility officials of hampering the state agency's investigation into the fires that killed two people, injured 40 firefighters and destroyed more than 1,300 homes.
Then, on Sept. 3, a San Diego jury awarded $15.2 million of SDG&E money to the families of four U.S. Marines killed in January 2004 when their helicopter struck an unlit utility tower at Camp Pendleton. The jury found SDG&E negligent in not putting lights or markers on the tower, and that then-SDG&E president Edwin Guiles and another utility executive “acted with malice” by not ordering the installation.
Now, that's a bad week for any company, but especially for SDG&E, which just a month earlier found itself accused by the PUC of presenting misleading information regarding its proposed Sunrise Powerlink, a proposed 150-mile transmission line through the county. The utility's PR people had just finished spinning that matter as a big misunderstanding when the PUC's wildfires report landed on their desks.
The document, by the commission's Consumer Protection & Safety Division (CPSD), supported Cal Fire's findings in July that SDG&E power lines sparked the Witch Creek and Rice Canyon fires under Santa Ana conditions last October. The report also agreed with Cal Fire that a faulty Cox Communications lashing wire connected with an SDG&E line, starting the Guejito fire. In all three cases, the report opined, the utility violated state regulations requiring the lines to be properly maintained and inspected.
Moreover, the report's authors listed in detail what they characterized as “SDG&E's unwillingness to provide immediate access to witnesses and evidence,” which “prevented CPSD from conducting a more timely investigation.”Then came the decision in the Marine families' wrongful-death lawsuit, which found that the helicopter tragedy would not have occurred had SDG&E's 135-foot utility pool been lighted or otherwise marked. The crash occurred during nighttime maneuvers and killed Cpl. Joshua Harris, 1st Lt. Michael Lawlor, Capt. Adam Miller and Staff Sgt. Lori Privette.
Faced with such a mountain of bad press, a lot of lesser PR reps would have thrown up their hands and gone into journalism. But SDG&E's crew gamely dug in their heels, issuing a statement dismissing the PUC report as “full of speculation and faulty conclusions, with sparse evidence.” Of the jury verdict, SDG&E expressed sympathy for the families, promised to appeal and stated: “The Marines knew the power lines and towers were there and, if the base commanders had wanted the towers lighted, all they had to do was ask.”
SDG&E is doing relatively well in the face of so much liability and alleged misbehavior. Its parent company, Sempra Energy (where the utility's former president, Guiles, is executive vice president of corporate development), just posted higher-than-expected earnings for the quarter ending June 30.