The state Public Utilities Commission Thursday approved a $12 million settlement agreement with three telecommunications companies over the ignition of the 2007 Malibu Canyon Fire.
The 3,836-acre wildfire roared down Malibu Canyon into Malibu's Civic Center area, injuring three firefighters and burning 10 homes, classrooms at two schools, a landmark Malibu castle and several businesses.
“This is an important step to creating greater public safety in the Malibu Canyon area,” Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon said.
Investigators determined the fire was ignited in an area where three utility poles located next to Malibu Canyon Road fell to the ground. The settlement agreement between the PUC's Consumer Protection and Safety Division and AT&T Mobility LLC, Sprint Telephony PCS L.P. and Verizon Wireless requires the companies to pay $12 million, divided equally in one- third shares, officials said.
Of this amount, $6.9 million will be paid to the state's general fund and $5.1 million to two other projects aimed at improving fire safety both in Malibu and in the general SC Edison service area.
The infrastructure fund will be used to strengthen utility poles in Malibu Canyon and to conduct a survey of joint-use poles in Southern California Edison's service territory for compliance with safety requirements.
Any money remaining will go to the state's general fund. The settlement agreement does not include Edison or NextG Networks of California Inc., and the PUC's case remains open in order to resolve allegations that SCE and NextG violated various PUC rules regarding their involvement with the fire.
"A settlement that included all the parties would have been desirable,'' Simon said. "Absent that, I view the requirement in this settlement to upgrade the safety factor of utility poles in Malibu Canyon to be essential for reducing the risk of a utility line-related fire in the region by strengthening and replacing electric poles.''
The fire started Oct. 21, 2007, when Santa Ana winds swept through Malibu Canyon. The PUC opened a penalty consideration case in 2009 to determine if AT&T, NextG, SCE, Sprint and Verizon Wireless violated any provisions of the California Public Utilities Code since the companies had equipment attached to the fallen poles, and several were joint owners of the fallen poles, the commission said.
Hans Laetz, a former Malibu City Council candidate, was granted official party status at the proceeding and sought to redirect all of the fines to power line safety projects in the Malibu area, according to a statement he released following the ruling.
However, the PUC ruled that its policy did not allow changes in a settlement agreement unless it is against the public's interest.
“It would have been better to direct the entire $12 million to Malibu, to investigate the leaning, warped power poles that we see along PCH and in the mountains,” Laetz said. “But I still hope the PUC will fund a pole inspection program for the entire Santa Monica Mountains when it gets the $74 million fine from Edison and the other phone company.”