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Decision 97-10-056 October 22, 1997
BEFORE THE PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA
Investigation on the Commission's own motion and order to Show Cause to determine if San Diego Gas & Electric Company should be held in violation of the Commission's General Order 95 for failure to have exercised reasonable tree trimming practices and procedures.
(Filed June 8, 1994)
(See Appendix B for Appearances.)
O P I N I O N
Introduction and Summary
This decision addresses all outstanding issues in our comprehensive review of the tree trimming practices of electric utilities within our jurisdiction, and closes Investigation (I.) 94-06-012. Our order concludes Phase II of the proceeding and, as specified in Decision (D.) 97-01-044, addresses the issues pertaining to the work of three subcommittees of participants in a series of workshops which were organized to review compliance with our tree trimming rule, identify ways to improve the operation of that rule, and suggest the means to implement such changes.
As required by the order instituting investigation (OII), we have reviewed the historical tree trimming practices of California's electric utilities. In response to events which transpired during the pendency of this proceeding, we have already amended the tree trimming rule, and we have adopted a timetable for the utilities to comply with the amended rule. We now complete the work of this investigation by addressing related aspects of the OII.
As reflected in the language of the amended order that initiated this proceeding, we have been guided throughout this process by the overarching principle that our task is to carry out the intent of Rule 35 of General Order (GO) 95, which governs tree trimming. Conversely, we have taken care to avoid the subject matter of several other proceedings that deal with concerns about related aspects of electric utility operations, in order to prevent inconsistent results and unfair surprise to the participants in this proceeding.
In view of overlaps which have occurred in the sequence of events in this proceeding, we believe it will be helpful if we review the chronology of those events in order to provide the context for today's decision. This should lessen any confusion about the nature of the actions we are taking here.
We initiated the original OII on June 8, 1994, after a farmworker was electrocuted as he worked beneath a San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E) line. We issued our order based upon our investigative staff's allegation that SDG&E's failure to comply with Rule 35 of GO 95 had substantially contributed to the injury. One month later we issued D. 94-07-033, which amended the original OII by expanding the scope of the investigation to include a review of the tree trimming practices of the other major investor-owned electric utilities in California. The second order also divided the subject matter of the proceeding into two phases: Phase I, examining only the incident involving SDG&E, and Phase II, encompassing a review of the tree trimming practices of all electric utilities. The order further required each respondent utility to file in Phase II all records and information concerning its tree trimming practices for the most recent five-year period, commencing as of 1989.
On August 10, 1994 , the assigned Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a prehearing conference (PHC). To effectuate the purpose of Phase II he required the respondents to submit compliance filings describing their respective tree trimming programs, and directed workshops to be held in Phase II. The ALJ delegated the conduct of these workshops to the Commission's Utilities Safety Branch (USB).
Two complaint proceedings, Bereczky v. Southern California Edison Company (Case (C. 95-05-020) and Bailey v. Pacific Gas and Electric Company (C. 94-11-044) were also coordinated with this investigation. The first of these involved the issue of an affected property owner's rights in a dispute over a utility tree trimming incident, and the other involved the question of the environmental effects of a utility's tree trimming practices, particularly in sensitive environments. Eventually both complaints were dismissed, but, at the ALJ's urging, the respective complainants participated in this proceeding as intervenors to assert their positions on the issues they had raised by filing their complaints. Their concerns have been taken into consideration in fashioning our order today.
On August 11, 1995, we issued our first interim decision, which approved a settlement proposed by USB and SDG&E that concluded Phase I of the proceeding. (D.95-08-054.) Among the actions that were taken under this order were a conductive tool handle exchange program and a public awareness program by SDG&E under USB's supervision. The order also specified further actions to be taken with respect to Phase II.
In April 1996 the participants filed their report on the workshops they had conducted under the aegis of USB. The report explained that the participants had formed four subcommittees to address various aspects of the entire tree trimming issue, namely, equipment (Subcommittee I), access (Subcommittee II), public awareness (Subcommittee III), and Rule 35 of GO 95 (Subcommittee IV). The report described the work of these four subcommittees and set forth the recommendations of each with respect to its particular area of inquiry.
Several major storm-related outages during the months preceding the issuance of the workshop report had aroused the Legislature's desire to assure that adequate tree trimming rules were in force, principally to prevent such outages. This resulted in a legislative directive in the 1996-97 Budget Report that such rules be adopted by the beginning of 1997, requiring us in turn to accelerate consideration of the workshop participants' investigation and proposal for revision of Rule 35. The urgency of this task was amplified by the occurrence of a major power outage and a catastrophic fire in mid-1996, both of which were determined to have been caused by contacts between tree limbs and utility power lines. Consequently, we isolated our consideration of the workshop report's recommendation concerning the trimming rule, and adopted our final standards for trimming trees in proximity to overhead electric lines in D. 97-01-044 (January 24, 1997).
The rule now mandates minimum standards for clearances that must be maintained at all times between conductors and surrounding vegetation, and sets forth additional guidelines for establishing clearances at the time of trimming, where practicable, between vegetation and energized conductors and other live parts of overhead lines. A minimum clearance of eighteen inches was established for lines of lower voltages, with greater clearances being required as voltages increased, as set forth in the appendix to the rule.
D. 97-01-044 also established a schedule for further steps to be taken to address the remaining aspects of our investigation. These aspects include the relationships between tools used near overhead lines and the occurrence of line contact accidents; relationships between county and local ordinances, adjacent owners` property rights and obligations, and the conduct of tree trimming by utilities (including rules and practices for trimming around service drops); and public awareness and education programs relating to tree trimming and overhead line safety issues. It is this blueprint, with certain related additions, that we have followed in preparing this final decision.
The additional issues are occasioned by the subsequent filing by Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) of a petition to modify D. 97-01-044. PG&E asks the Commission to exempt utilities from adhering to the adopted 18-inch minimum clearance standard with respect to the trunks of large, established trees that do not currently meet such a standard, and for trees which have been "directionally pruned" away from utility conductors. PG&E also asks us to enlarge the two-year period adopted in that order for accomplishment of full compliance with the new standards, by an additional eighteen months. Because of the relationship of these requests to the other issues in this concluding phase and the imminent occurrence of the evidentiary hearing (EH), the ALJ shortened the response time for comments on the petition to enable the parties to consider the request before filing their prepared testimony, and permitted evidence on these topics to be introduced at the EH.
A three-day EH commenced April 21 in accordance with the Commission's directive in D.97-01-044, and the proceeding was submitted May 27, 1997, following the filing of concurrent briefs.