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Supreme Court rejects utility's appeal on who pays for wildfire costs

Rob Nikolewski, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Political News

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday morning said it will not hear San Diego Gas & Electric's appeal of a California Supreme Court case that turned back the utility's request to pass along $379 million in costs related to the 2007 wildfires that blazed through San Diego County.

"The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied," the high court said in regard to the SDG&E request that was part of a long, 78-page list of dispositions of cases from parties from around the country who were asking for their cases to be heard.

The U.S. Supreme Court generally receives more than 7,000 such requests a year and agrees to hear only 100 to 150 of those petitions.

The dispute over the $379 million dates back more than a decade, when SDG&E first applied to recover the money from ratepayers.

But investigations into the causes of the Witch, Guejito and Rice fires -- three of the worst wildfires in a devastating firestorm that befell San Diego County in October 2007 -- found they were sparked by SDG&E equipment that had not been properly maintained.

The three fires combined to kill two people, injure 40 firefighters and destroy 1,300 homes.

 

In the aftermath of the wildfires, investigators determined that SDG&E had not properly trimmed trees and other vegetation growing near its backcountry power lines.

SDG&E spent $2.4 billion to resolve more than 2,000 lawsuits related to the 2007 wildfires but the utility insisted the blazes were ignited by factors it could not control -- including extreme Santa Ana winds, a lashing wire owned by Cox Communications that hit an SDG&E power line and a tree limb that fell onto an SDG&E line due to high winds.

The utility had $1.1 billion of liability insurance in place in 2007, which SDG&E officials say was the maximum amount they could obtain.

SDG&E officials have pointed out the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate transmission rates, granted SDG&E settlement payments through rates that eventually came to $80 million and found "the record indicates SDG&E behaved as a reasonable, prudent utility in the maintenance of its lines prior to the wildfires."

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