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Utility Futility

Anger Runs High After Outages:
State probe of PG&E's emergency preparedness sought

By Bruce Robinson

"It seems to me that things have changed for the worse since last year," says Mark Foxwell. "I know that PG&E has been laying off its people and spending its money on expanding into Oregon and Washington, but they have an obligation here."

Foxwell resides in Windsor, where he is a live-in caregiver for a disabled woman who depends on a number of electric-powered support devices, "but none of them are actually life support," he adds. Still, he is concerned that prolonged power failures--like the one that struck the North Bay a week ago after the first blustery winter storm toppled power lines--may jeopardize others whose lives literally depend on reliable power. If the utility cannot quickly restore lifeline service to these people in the next emergency, "I guess a certain percentage of those people die," he worries.

In Occidental, where families went more than six days without electricity, the darkness was compounded by a lack of water from pumps that could not operate. Dixie Lee Meiselbach saw her lights go out Dec. 11; they were still out and she "was down to my last gallon of water" when she left for San Francisco the following Saturday afternoon. "My hot-water tank is propane and my stove is propane, so I didn't starve to death," she says, "but it got awful dark and cold. The fireplace is on a heatalator [pump], and that doesn't work when there's no power."

PG&E finally restored her service on Dec 17, just 16 hours short of a full week after it first went out.

But regardless of how long they were powerless, thousands of people who had to wait on service crews before they could resume their normal lives are unhappy with their local power monopoly. Eric Koenigshofer, a Santa Rosa attorney and supervisorial candidate whose Freestone home was dark for three days, wants to harness that anger and channel it to the state Public Utilities Commission. "The public needs to have an accounting of what PG&E is doing," he says. "There are so many people expressing dissatisfaction with the PG&E response [to the storm] that I think it is appropriate to demonstrate that to the PUC."

Koenigshofer has drafted a petition calling on the PUC to hold a hearing in Sonoma County to address the utility's "failure to adequately serve rate payers/users in western Sonoma County." He hopes such a review may force PG&E to reassess its emergency preparedness. "The goal is to have the PUC look at PG&E and their performance and [assess] whether or not it was adequate, because the public impression is that it was not," Koenigshofer explains.

The utility company also came under fire after last winter's floods for responding slowly to emergency calls.

The company's "extremely slow reaction" to getting customers back on line was "absolutely intolerable," the petition states. It also asserts that "the executive managers of the company have been negligent and have failed to keep the company prepared to meet its public service duty as a public utility." In addition, it states that "the failure of PG&E to adequately maintain its power lines and other facilities, and excessive reductions in staff were obvious in this event."

Public response was more than immediate. Even before he left the copy shop at which he had the petitions duplicated, "people working there were asking me if they could sign one or take some to circulate," Koenigshofer says. He has no goal for the number of signatures he hopes to collect, and plans to present the petitions to the PUC in January.

According to PG&E spokesman Jeff Lewis, some 135,000 households and businesses throughout Sonoma County were affected by the scattered outages, some for a matter of hours and others for more than six days. Crews made repairs at 322 locations. Most of the longest outages were in isolated rural areas, such as Camp Meeker and Occidental, where extensive damage taxed even the generally high level of emergency preparedness. "People in rural areas are more adversely affected by power outages than people in urban areas," says Koenigshofer, because they are dependent on electricity to power the pumps for their wells. The low-emission pellet stoves now required by the county also rely on electrical fans to function properly. "People in the outlying areas are especially hard hit, when the urban areas come on first and areas like ours just sit in the dark while our freezers defrost. That just isn't good enough."

He suggests that "PG&E might need to rethink how they're allocating resources" and give a higher priority to those rural customers, especially the elderly. "There are many people whose age and physical circumstances just don't accommodate night after night of darkness and absence of heat, no hot water, or wells that don't operate," Koenigshofer adds.

The widespread impacts of the windstorm, which swept across Northern California with gusts over 100 mph, knocked down 450 miles of power lines, including a line of 32 transmitter towers near Chico. The resulting damage was more severe than that caused by the 1988 Loma Prieta earthquake. "In a sense, we got hit with a hurricane," says PG&E spokesman Lewis. "That's something we've never experienced."

Most of the worst damage "was invisible to the customer, but devastating to the system."

PG&E canceled plans to furlough some 800 workers after the storms of last January and March, Lewis says, just to maintain a higher level of readiness. The hard choice for management, he says, is "what do you do with an extra 300 employees 360 days a year, and how do customers feel about paying for them?" Some 3,000 workers, including mutual-aid crews imported from Los Angeles and San Diego, worked 36 hour shifts to repair the damage in difficult conditions, Lewis continues, with only a single minor injury. The total repair bill is likely to exceed $40 million. "Comparing this to other similar events, we didn't do too badly," he says, "but it's hard to tell customers that."

Koenigshofer is one of the more gentle skeptics. "We have heard a lot of rumors about reductions in maintenance and staffing relating to field crews to respond to emergencies such as we just had," he says, while at the same time, "If you track the performance of PG&E stock over the last few years, it's been very strong. It's clearly not acceptable if service levels are being sacrificed for the result of having stock value increase, because profits go up as expenditures go down.

"The result is that people don't get the level of service they are paying for."

Sigrid Hawkes, an outreach coordinator for the utility watchdog group TURN (Toward Utility Rate Normalization), is more blunt in her criticisms of PG&E. "Their best is a far cry from good enough," she says. "There needed to be so many more crews. I understand Oregon received a very similar battering from the storm, and they mobilized the utility people early and didn't have the weeklong outages we had here."

TURN is strongly supportive of grassroots efforts to force the PUC's attention to these issues, Hawkes adds, "but you have to hit them over the head with a two-by-four to get their attention." She suggests that in addition to signing petitions, people angry with PG&E should vent their frustrations on Pete Wilson's office, too, since "the governor appointed these fellows" on the PUC.

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From the Dec. 28, 1995-Jan. 3, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
© 1995 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.

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