Two utility giants whose equipment sparked deadly wildfires across San Diego County a decade ago are waging a war of words in a state regulatory proceeding that seeks approval to charge customers hundreds of millions of dollars in fire-related costs.
Cox Communications filed paperwork last week asking the California Public Utilities Commission to temporarily join the proceeding initiated by San Diego Gas & Electric, which wants to bill ratepayers $379 million in leftover expenses from the Witch, Guejito and Rice fires.
Lawyers for Cox and SDG&E are accusing each other of mischaracterizing the cause of the Guejito fire in testimony submitted to the utilities commission.
"Cox seeks limited party status so that it may file a motion to strike certain false and defamatory statements that SDG&E included in its briefs in this proceeding stating that Cox's actions indisputably caused the Guejito Fire and that Cox never inspected its facilities," the cable company wrote.
"These false statements are not just injurious to Cox's business reputation, they are also unfair to the commission's decision-making process and to SDG&E ratepayers."
Cox Communications submitted its application last Wednesday, saying it was doing so only because it was unable to resolve the dispute informally. On Monday, SDG&E filed a 22-page response urging the utilities commission to reject the cable company's request.
"Cox advances its own interpretation of the facts and evidence regarding the broken Cox lashing wire and Cox's pre-fire inspections..." SDG&E said. "This illogical and patently self-serving argument should not be entertained."
Regulators have not yet ruled on Cox's request, which is the latest turn in a long-running quest by SDG&E to win permission to charge customers for the last of its costs related to the wildfires.
The three fires exploded in October 2007 as searing temperatures and gusty winds swept across the backcountry.
The Witch fire broke out east of Ramona on the afternoon of Oct. 21. The Guejito fire erupted in the San Pasqual Valley a dozen or so hours later before merging with the Witch fire, destroying more than 1,100 homes and claiming two lives.
The Rice fire ignited early the same morning near Fallbrook and burned 200-plus homes. A spate of other wildfires engulfed the county that week, sending up to 500,000 people running from the historic firestorm.
According to two separate state investigations, SDG&E power lines and Cox cables arced together to ignite vegetation that had not been properly cleared from the easements. It was not determined which company's equipment was specifically responsible.
SDG&E paid more than $2 billion in settlements and other spending associated with the fires but never admitted liability. The city of San Diego collected $27 million and San Diego County received a $24.5 million payment.
Cox agreed to pay the electric monopoly $444 million for its role in the fires. The cable company did not seek to join SDG&E's attempt to recover funds from customers until it learned earlier this year that SDG&E was justifying its request for a $379 million rate hike in part by blaming Cox.
"We were, thus, surprised to learn of SDG&E's contention in its Phase 1 opening brief that Cox 'never inspected' its attachments and the accompanying allegation that 'there is no dispute that the Guejito Fire was caused by the fact that Cox's lashing wire broke…," the motion states.
SDG&E contends that Cox should not be permitted to join the proceeding at this later stage.
"Cox was certainly aware that a variety of arguments regarding the Guejito Fire were likely to be made in this proceeding, and that if it believed its business reputation or interests could be implicated, it should seek party status," SDG&E told the commission. "It failed to do so."
SDG&E has sought to recover its costs from customers — many of whom were victims of the wildfires — for years. Its most recent application filed in 2015 asks the California Public Utilities Commission to raise rates by $379 million, or about $1.67 a month for each residential bill for six years.
The company has argued that fire costs are permitted to be recovered from customers, even if utility equipment caused the fires.
"The costs for liabilities, including losses not covered by insurance or settlement claims, are ordinarily approved for inclusion in a utility's rates," SDG&E lawyers wrote to regulators.
But the commission's Office of Ratepayer Advocates urged commissioners to reject the application, saying the utility should not be allowed to profit from failing to properly maintain its equipment.
"SDG&E's actions in regards to the 2007 Witch, Guejito and Rice fires were not those of a prudent manager," the ratepayer advocates wrote in a filing last year.
At a pair of public hearings earlier this year, a parade of San Diego County residents and consumer advocates pleaded with regulators to reject the SDG&E application. A proposed decision is expected later this year, although the final determination will be made by the full commission.