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Residents of Malibu, California, are accusing upper-level city staff of deceit, claiming that for months the staff members hid the fact that they failed to enforce a city council mandate requiring T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T to include eight safety-related engineering documents in their 5G infrastructure permit applications.
Malibu’s city council in 2021 mandated the eight documents be reviewed, sealed and signed by a professional engineer to ensure the project’s design did not pose a significant fire risk, as the city has a long history of devastating fires involving telecom equipment.
“Three people died trying to escape the fire,” Susan Foster, a fire and utility consultant who co-founded the nonprofit California Fires & Firefighters, told The Defender. “Families had to flee into the ocean with their children on their shoulders.”
Malibu residents like Malibu For Safe Tech Executive Director Lonnie Gordon said she found it “shocking” that city department heads and the city attorney refused to ensure that T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T submitted the required documents in their applications for 19 new 5G small cell projects.
Gordon and other residents were repeatedly told they couldn’t see the companies’ safety designs because the documents were “confidential.”
Gordon told The Defender:
“After months of stonewalling us, they finally sent us 1.5 gigs of info, which is thousands of pages of information … The time and effort it took our attorney, [W.] Scott McCollough, and the electrical engineer to go through these materials was arduous.”
McCollough, chief litigator for Children Health Defense’s (CHD) electromagnetic radiation (EMR) cases, and engineer Erik S. Anderson discovered that confidentiality wasn’t the reason the city withheld the documents from public view.
“The issue is not confidentiality of the documents,” McCollough wrote to city planning officials, “It is that there are, in fact, no such documents. City staff has not enforced the requirement for the key materials.”
In his letter written last week on behalf of city residents, McCollough said the “claim of confidentiality” was “just a ruse to conceal the fact that higher-level … City staff were inhibiting implementation” of the full application requirements.
“This deceit is disturbing,” he added.
In his letter, McCollough was careful not to accuse lower-level city staff of deceiving the public and failing to enforce the safety requirements. “At most they were carrying out instructions from their superiors,” he said.
‘Slap in the face to the city council members’
Malibu City staff have not said why they are not enforcing the requirements.
The Defender reached out to Rusin, Mollica and Bundy for an explanation of their inaction, but none responded by our publication deadline.
Gordon said, “It is a slap in the face to the city council members and a disgrace to the city,” especially after she and other residents had “fought so hard” to get the council “to include these fire and electrical protocols” in the city’s application process.
McCollough told The Defender he and Anderson also identified faulty design issues in some of the proposed projects that “present significant fire risks because of a mismatch between load, connectors and breakers.”
“Stated simply, the fuses are too big for the wiring, so more load can be put on the wires than they are designed to handle. This excessive load causes the wiring to overheat. This leads to failure and a fire,” McCollough said.
Foster said the city’s failure to require the fire safety documents would be called “negligence in any city — but it’s outrageous negligence in a city with Malibu’s fire history at the hands of telecom.”
Foster — an honorary firefighter with the San Diego Fire Department — authored a 2022 white paper, “Protecting LA County’s Future: How Fire Risks from Telecommunications Equipment, Climate Challenges & A Dangerous Shift Away from Environmental Review Threaten Los Angeles County’s Future.”
Malibu, like many other U.S. cities, is currently experiencing an “onslaught” of telecom applications to build out 5G, McCollough said.
As of Oct. 12, the city has 57 pending permit applications with 31 of those submitted this year, mostly by T-Mobile. Three applications were from AT&T and one was from Verizon. “All are deemed incomplete,” he said.
‘Not asking for the moon’
Foster in 2020 joined with McCollough and Tony Simmons, an electrical engineer, to develop the fire safety protocol.
“Our protocol was not asking for the moon,” Foster said. “We were simply asking for adherence to sound engineering practices and proof of that adherence.”
Foster told the Defender:
“Eight engineering documents were supposed to be attached to each new cell tower application, signed and sealed by a professional engineer working for the carrier submitting the application.
“We were not asking for anything that wouldn’t be required of the electrical designs for the signage at a corner convenience store.”
Foster said she knew the protocol wouldn’t prevent every fire, “but we knew without doubt we could stop shoddy engineering practices from continuing to be the norm in a city that has burned twice in the last 15 years, in whole or in part, because of engineering mistakes.”
Other major Malibu fire caused by overloaded telecom equipment
The Woosley Fire was not the first Malibu fire sparked by telecom equipment.
The Malibu Canyon Fire in 2007, at the time called Malibu’s “worst fire in years” but later surpassed in devastation by the Woosley Fire, started when three overloaded utility poles “snapped in high winds and sparks ignited the grass below, ultimately torching 3,800 acres, destroying 14 structures, and burning four firefighters — two of them severely,” Foster recalled.
The poles belonged to Southern California Edison (SCE) and involved carriers AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and NextG.
As part of a $37 million settlement, SCE admitted it failed to prevent NextG from attaching fiber optic cables to the poles, despite an assessment determining the lines would overload the poles.
“What is so troubling,” Foster said, “is that the parties accused by the California Public Utilities Commission of starting [both] fires were also the ones attempting to thwart the fire investigations.”
Foster and McCollough knew this as they began their work in Malibu, she said.
“We were not going to let telecom police telecom anymore,” Foster said. “If they were covering their tracks after the fires they caused, how could we expect them to do better coming into Malibu the next time if we didn’t hold them accountable?”
Telecom fires a ‘national problem’
By adopting their fire safety protocol, Foster and McCollough hoped Malibu would serve as an example of how a city “that had been so severely scarred” could examine the fire risks of telecom, “figure out what every other city was missing” and “set a new norm for engineering rigor for telecom equipment across this country.”
Both McCollough and Foster stressed that Malibu is not the only city suffering from fires involving telecom equipment.
“If you think telecom fires are just starting in Malibu, you need to see my growing collection of fire incident reports,” Foster said. “This is not a local problem. This is a national problem.”
McCollough said Malibu’s failure to apply the protocol suggests that many small cells and towers already in existence in Malibu use a faulty safety design.
“Any one of them could pop off any day and cause another major fire,” he said. “This is concerning because right now is high-wind and dry season in Malibu.”