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Hundreds at Public Hearing Protest SDG&E Plan To Recoup Fire Costs

“We’re still getting burned,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob told the Public Utilities Commission.

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 .

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.

Click here for contact information for the commissioners.

Daniel Wise April 09, 2012 at 04:50 AM
The heart of the problem is that what used to known as "public utilities" have now been deregulated into behemoth global power brokers, like Sempra Energy. Yet, we expect them to be concerned about the economics of their monopolized ratepayers? Not going to happen as long as these "investor-owned" utilities don't have to compete. Not only does SDG$E want us to cover their risk and cost of doing business in a "free market", but they'll also make us pay for all expenses incurred from any nuclear accidents which would exceed their insured limits of liabilities as well. This link helps define a new direction for us to look towards in utility infrastructures. http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/blog/post/2012/04/trade-in-the-20th-century-electric-grid-dont-trade-off-local-energy?cmpid=rss
Susan Brinchman April 09, 2012 at 03:28 PM
Yes, Daniel, internationally-run companies like Sempra are not interested in the health or welfare of the "rate-payers" (not even called customers - all we are is a payment source, to them). The companies can be owned by interests in Hong Kong and other locations that are not our friends, to say the least. Profit, and perhaps the demise of Americans, may be the interests of these "global" interests. it surely appears to be so with regards to smart meters, the dangerous new utility meters that are making people sick. We cannot allow ourselves and our nation to be worked over and subdued - we need to fight back. Forget about your everyday distractions and work with established groups to demand that the governor reign in the CPUC to represent customer interests, not company interests. That means getting rid of Michael Peevey, puppet of the utilities, as the head Commissioner. Mr. Peevey, a former Edison (Sempra) executive, is a major problem at the state regulatory level. The entire system is not only failing us but can bring America down. The wireless electrical grid system they are building is susceptible to attack by domestic or foreign terrorists, using manmade electromagnetic pulses. This is intolerable but the current administration is fostering this mess. Lead Counsel for CPUC (head atty) is Frank Lindh, none other than father of American Taliban John Lindh, who feels his son did no wrong, even when associating with Osama bin Ladin during his military training abroad.
Susan Brinchman April 09, 2012 at 03:37 PM
Mr. Lindh is the person who decides, for the CPUC, whether that regulatory agency is following state laws, including the public utility codes, which CPUC ignores much of the time, when it comes to safety and representing the customers. There are others in key position in the CPUC who should not be there, and they even enjoy expensive perks and financial benefits that should land them in jail. There may, in my opinion, even be a cell working at the CPUC to bring America's grid DOWN. But under the current administration, which is hell bent on the new electrical grid being set up with our Recovery Act tax money helping pay for it, these issues are ignored. We, as Americans, must protect our rights and freedoms, our privacy, and health, even when the politicians (from both parties) sell us out to the highest bidder, to finance their own campaigns. I was at the meeting in the article above. I was told that Mike Aguirre revealed that the administrative law judge (Bushey), appointed by her CPUC boss Peevey, ultimately) had previously been a SDG&E atty. I was outside handing out fliers at the time. I would like to know if this is true. Anyone who was there, or Mr. Aguirre, care to comment? This would be the type of conflicted practice the CPUC engages in routinely.
Kevin George April 09, 2012 at 04:58 PM
Robert, imaginary entities do not have contact information. I will continue to use Susans 1-800-Im nuts number for any communications.
Kevin George April 09, 2012 at 07:30 PM
Raped...............Really Susan........the Nazi references weren't enough?

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