State regulators open investigation into shut-offs; SCV officials respond

A workman in a cherry picker works on powers lines that were blown down in high winds in Newhall on October 13, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal
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California regulators voted Wednesday to commence a formal investigation into the recent and controversial public safety power shut-offs that have left communities in the Santa Clarita Valley and across the state blacked out during fire season. 

The California Public Utilities Commission’s unanimous decision allows it to investigate whether investor-owned utilities, such as Southern California Edison, took the proper steps to prioritize public safety during outages and to ascertain what can be done in the future. 

Wednesday’s special meeting brought on verbal and written comments from the public that urged commissioners to take action, including a letter from the Santa Clarita City Council.

“We wanted to specifically say that we want the (Public Utilities Commission) to direct utilities so that they can accelerate upgrades to their infrastructure, so we sent out a letter,” Mayor Marsha McLean said Wednesday morning. 

On Tuesday, the City Council gave staff direction to prepare the letter and added that legislative action should take place if the commission did not open an investigation. 

“I don’t think most people want to live in the 1800s, but that’s exactly what happens the minute they shut down all the power, and it’s cruel if you’re on medication or medical devices — you’re in serious trouble,” Councilwoman Laurene Weste said on Tuesday. “If it isn’t resolved tomorrow, there needs to be strong legislative action.”

State Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, took the initiative last week, calling for a special session of the Legislature to investigate the power outages via a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

“Calls for the PUC to investigate these shut-offs is like asking the fox to audit the hen house,” he wrote in a prepared statement last week. “The investigating agency must be completely independent from undue influence of both the administration and (investor-owned utilities).” 

As of Wednesday afternoon, there was no sign of an approved special session but an oversight hearing of the state Senate on the power shut-offs is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 18, according to Wilk’s office. 

Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita, who also wrote a letter to Newsom, said Wednesday that “(r)ecent public safety power shut-offs have endangered the lives of our neighbors, particularly those living in rural communities and the medically fragile. I am pleased to see CPUC vote to investigate investor-owned electric utilities.” 

She is expected to be in attendance, as well as Southern California Edison representatives, to discuss the shut-offs at an Agua Dulce Town Council meeting 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20, at the Agua Dulce Women’s Club.

In a prepared statement, Edison spokeswoman Mary Ann Milbourn said, “Southern California Edison will be actively participating in the CPUC process that seeks to address this very important topic for all of our customers and for the safety of the communities we serve.”

Mayor Pro Tem Cameron Smyth said the issue is “clearly about liability and unfortunately, nothing else.”  

“Edison staff were telling customers that it was the city’s decision (to shut off power) and sending customers to call us,” Smyth said on Tuesday, and called it a “misdirection” by the utility company. 

The decision, however, “is 100% with us,” Edison spokesman Robert Laffoon-Villegas said, adding that he did not know the specifics related to Santa Clarita but that the utility company does communicate with local government prior to a planned outage. 

In Santa Clarita, more than 10,000 households experienced power disruption on Oct. 30, just one of the seven days the area has undergone power shut-offs since Oct. 1, according to the city. 

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