Hundreds at Protest SDG&E Plan To Recoup Fire Costs

Consumers don’t want to pay for SDG&E’s negligence

Outcry erupted as hundreds gathered to tell representatives of the state Public Utilities Commission on Thursday what they think of San Diego Gas & Electric Co.’s proposal to potentially collect “excess” costs of the 2007 wildfires and any future fires from ratepayers.

“Chutzpah!” was all one woman said when she got to the lectern. She explained the meaning of the word. “Complete … unmitigated … gall.”

The meeting began with people in the audience booing and yelling as a SDG&E spokesman explained the figures on a white board. So far, the company’s insurance has covered $1.1 billion in costs for the 2007 Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires. Under a proposal before the PUC, the company could lay the foundation to recover an estimated $500 million or more for the uninsured costs incurred from these fires and also collect for any future wildfires, whether the utility is found to have caused the blazes or not. That could include legal fees incurred by the utility.

County Supervisor Dianne Jacob received a standing ovation from many in the audience Thursday after telling representatives of the PUC, “You burn it, you buy it,” referring to SDG&E.

“We feel like we’re still getting burned,” she said. “I am outraged, like many ratepayers in this room. Two people died … while Sempra gives out bonuses.”

Together, the three fires killed two civilians, injured at least 40 firefighters, scorched more than 200,000 acres and incinerated 1,300 homes. Firefighting agencies spent more than $18 million to quench the Witch Creek Fire alone.

SDG&E seeks to establish a Wildfire Expense Balancing Account (WEBA) to record its fire related expenses. Once set up, that would lay the foundation for the utility to bill its customers for “excess costs.”

In an interview with Patch earlier this year, SDG&E’s spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan said these types of accounts are common. She said the company should have an opportunity to recoup costs when “the utility is not at fault.” Donovan explained the company’s position in depth in this January 2012 story on Patch.

State investigators found that SDG&E’s poorly maintained equipment was a cause of the 2007 wildfires. The company never accepted responsibility for causing the fires, and in the settlement approved by the PUC, it admitted blocking the investigations into the causes.

Thursday’s hearing was brought to San Diego by request of residents after various parties filed papers with the PUC to block SDG&E’s plan and give ratepayers a chance to weigh in on the matter. The opponents are Mussey Grade Road Alliance of Ramona, Michael Aguirre (representing resident Ruth Henricks), a group called TURN (The Utility Reform Network) and the Center for Accessible Technology (representing people with disabilities). 

Two staff divisions of the PUC are also in opposition, according to TURN: the Consumer Protection and Safety Division and Division of Ratepayer Advocates.

Representatives of the opposing parties were present Thursday but were not allowed to make presentations, except as individuals. An attorney for TURN, Nina Suetake, told Patch outside the meeting that one of two SDG&E proposals before the PUC seeks to allow the utility to recoup uninsured costs even for “criminal negligence” related to fires. She said attorneys for the various groups in opposition were “shocked” when they saw this wording.

Several speakers Thursday told commission representatives there would be no incentive for SDG&E to carry out its safety obligations if it can simply pass along fire costs to ratepayers.

The hearing was before PUC Commissioner Timothy Simon and Administrative Law Judge Maribeth Bushey, who is the presiding judge for this case.

As the Thursday afternoon session began, a spokeswoman silenced the crowd by saying, “We have 146 people signed up to speak.” She asked people to let SDG&E give their presentation and then allow the speakers to proceed without interruptions, in order to fit everyone into the schedule. There was standing room only in the Al Bahr Shriners’ Memorial Auditorium in Kearny Mesa.

Among other afternoon speakers were state Senator Christine Kehoe, County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price and Dave Roberts, Deputy Mayor of Solana Beach.

Kehoe told the panel she wants to make sure ratepayers are treated fairly in this process. She said fire agencies have told her that “we can expect more wildfires, each possibly in excess of 100,000 acres.”

Slater-Price said, “I think it’s telling that other utilities have seen the light and have withdrawn their applications (to the PUC).”

Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric both pulled out of the proposal, according to Mussey Grade Road Alliance.

Several speakers told the commission representatives that SDG&E’s insurance issues shouldn’t be the public’s problem.

“I think it’s time SDG&E is forced to absorb its losses like other businesses,” Slater-Price said. “Why should customers have to help them out?”

Roberts told the panel, “No one in this room expects SDG&E to be perfect. But we expect them to own up. SDG&E made a mistake and like all businesses, they must be held accountable. You’re charged with protecting the public from decisions that are not in their best interests.”

A few people spoke in support of SDG&E. One member of a fire agency said SDG&E is working proactively for fire prevention and he would not like to see insurance issues distract from that. A policy maker for County Supervisor Ron Roberts said the utility has donated computers in support of a regional fire emergency communications system. A mortgage industry representative said the county supervisors need to be held accountable for what happened during the fires and that “we were all unprepared.” Loud groans were sometimes heard among the audience when people spoke in support of the utility.

At the evening session, a Fallbrook man choked back tears as he told the panel how he and his family lost their home and “everything.” He said some neighbors with losses have still not been paid. He asked the panel why SDG&E should receive money. “Let’s make people whole first,” he said.

Some speakers talked about what they called SDG&E’s “social bribery” in terms of the utility giving gifts to various organizations since the fires.

Commissioner Simon wrapped up the hearing at about 8:45 p.m. saying he would not give a date for the issuance of his proposed decision to the full PUC  but that he would “try to move this thing along judiciously.”

Simon and Judge Bushey will work on the opinion together. It’s possible there could be two written opinions, he told Patch after the hearing. They have 60 days from last week to issue the proposed decision. It will then be sent to the opposing parties for review. The public can sign up on the PUC website to receive an alert when the proposed decision is made public. That opinion will go to the five-member PUC for a vote.

Outside the meeting, Mussey Grade Road Alliance representative Diane Conklin told Patch that ratepayers need to continue sending their opinions to the PUC for at least a couple more months.