PG&E blasted by Placerville City Council for power shutdown

PG&E blasted by Placerville City Council for power shutdown

PG&E was damned Tuesday by Placerville city leaders, with the City Council unanimously voting to send a vociferous “letter of condemnation” to the power company that turned off the lights Sunday, Oct. 14 as an ostensible wildland fire prevention tactic. Most of El Dorado County remained in the dark throughout the following day, with matters made more contentious as some parts of town had electricity and others did not.

Council members and city administrators during Tuesday’s regular City Council meeting pulled no punches, saying that PG&E used the local area as a “guinea pig” for its first-ever power safety shutdown, unfairly targeting Placerville and its surrounds as “ground zero” for the exercise.

And that inaugural Public Safety Power Shutoff was a decided failure, the City Council indicated during the meeting that PG&E had been invited to attend but reportedly declined.

PG&E representatives apparently told Placerville officials they were busy with their own meetings in the wake of the controversial power shutdown but said they would try to come to the Nov. 27 City Council meeting to address local concerns.

After the plug was pulled in several north state counties that Sunday, most of the West Slope of El Dorado County was without electrical power throughout Monday, with traffic lights on Highway 50 through Placerville completely dark after their batteries died following four hours of flashing red.

The resulting gridlock in town was a nightmare, council members agreed, with council member Patty Borelli “thanking God” that no emergency occurred where the traffic snarl prevented someone from receiving life saving help.

And were it not for the “heroic” efforts of Doug Veerkamp Engineering that sent its crews to service city generators at the wastewater treatment plant with diesel fuel, Placerville very well could be looking at hefty fines from the state due to sewage entering the creek below, officials said during Tuesday’s meeting.

With Placerville City Manager Cleve Morris out of town in Texas and Mayor Wendy Thomas also away when the power was shut off, city staff who jumped in to handle the emergencies borne of PG&E’s power play also performed with professionalism and creativity, the council and crowd were told Tuesday.

At one point, because the key to City Hall was with Morris on vacation in Texas, acting city manager Pierre Rivas figured out which employee might have a duplicate (Bob Pyne of Public Works) and managed to open up for business Monday.

“Pierre Rivas did an exceptional job,” began Morris. “He remained cool and collected and worked wherever he could get in. He happened to be at work Sunday (when the power went out)” and so began dealing with the situation almost immediately, Morris said.

The city manager added that city staff including Steve Youel, Jim Ortega and Rick Ferreira also are praiseworthy for their quick action to keep the city running, particularly in the wake of El Dorado Irrigation District issuing a warning that the city water system was going down.

“They made sure all the city (backup) generators had fuel,” recounted Morris. “They got hold of Veerkamp and they were able to service our generators including the two at the wastewater treatment plant.

“One of those two is on its last legs and if (Veerkamp and city staff) hadn’t been able to keep them running the city would have been facing massive penalties from the state.”

The city manager said colleagues have often quipped that he should “never go on vacation because something is sure to happen.”

“It appears that this time it was true,” smiled Morris.

He also commended the Police Department for “dealing with emergencies that occurred” and added that despite little or no warning from PG&E that the juice was going to be cut, the city “learned something from this.”

“I don’t think we had the proper warning,” said Morris, who indicated that PG&E officials have told Placerville authorities that the state Office of Emergency Services was supposed to have warned the city about the impending power shutoff. That didn’t happen, according to city staff.

“We were told that OES was supposed to notify us and we’re looking into whether that’s true,” said the city manager. He said once Caltrans officials were notified that the traffic signals on Highway 50 through town were out, Caltrans staff told the city they were in the dark about the shutoff.

With the south side of Main Street blessed with power throughout PG&E’s two-day experiment and the north side staying dark, business owners on both sides of the street mulled the unfairness of some making extra money being able to serve “overflow” customers and others making none at all.

City Councilman Mark Acuna, who worked several years for PG&E, found himself in a unique position during Tuesday’s meeting — but he, too, said he found his former employer’s actions questionable and ultimately in error.

After receiving praise from City Manager Morris and from Mayor Thomas for acting as liaison between PG&E and city staff during the two days, Acuna lightened things up by saying, “Cleve was in Texas so we couldn’t get the keys, Dave Warren (city finance director) was camping so we couldn’t get any money and the city attorney was out of town so we couldn’t sue anybody.”

Acuna described the gridlock at the three traffic signals resulting from the dead lights as “Apple Hill on steroids” and he urged that the city continue its protests to PG&E so that the power giant will understand just how poorly its actions were perceived.

The councilman added that he thinks the Police Department, Public Works and Caltrans  should come up with a mutual plan for when the power goes out and the traffic signals go down.

“Eighteen hours without functioning signals is just not an option,” said Acuna, getting nods of agreement from fellow council members.

Councilwoman Patty Borelli reminded the panel that she has “been harping on this for years,” referring to her frequent warnings that the city needs to be better prepared to handle emergency situations.

“It’s a huge lesson … and thank God there wasn’t a horror … where anyone lost their lives.”

Councilman John Clerici angrily posited that PG&E was not responding to a legitimate fire danger emergency, despite press releases to that effect mentioning high winds predicted to sweep through the area. The possibility of wind-downed trees and limbs onto power lines, potentially sparking fires, prompted the shutdown, PG&E has said.

“It wasn’t about fires — it was about keeping PG&E stockholders happy,” charged Clerici, who mentioned that the power mogul “got sued” over hugely destructive fires last year in Sonoma County and other coastal and inland areas.

“Why do it here?” he asked, questioning PG&E’s choice of shutdowns in the relatively sparsely populated areas of El Dorado and other nearby counties. “They did this to make a statement … and screw some folks.

“This cost a lot of people a lot of money,” continued Clerici. In addition to those stores that stayed closed during the outage, “some businesses had to pay their employees after having to send them home,” he pointed out.

The city, too, likely lost money due to the power shutdown extending into a workday, said Clerici, who added the municipality could have been looking at even more loss had the wastewater treatment plant failed.

“Thank God for Doug Veerkamp — he saved us tens of thousands of dollars.”

Clerici, who uttered an expletive in describing PG&E’s power shutdown, told the Tuesday gathering at Town Hall, “I don’t think we need to be particularly nice to PG&E” as he urged his fellows to continue to protest.

“We may be tilting at windmills … because PG&E is powerful,” the councilman added. “But they did this — this was them screwing us.

“Turn up the outrage.”


By: Pat Lakey for the Mountain Democrat