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Rotting power poles caused collapse that injured two, report says

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Adrian Florez

Last April, two people were sent to the hospital when the car they were driving was struck by a power pole. 

The pole was one of 26 that came down unexpectedly along on East Marginal Way South, in Tukwila, in a dramatic collapse during a storm.

An investigator's report says the more than two dozen 60-foot tall power poles came down because of six that had internal decay. Reporter David Gutman wrote about it in The Seattle Times, and talked to KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco about what went wrong.


On how the poles collapsed: “There was kind of a storm. There were high winds, and the investigation found that the highest measured wind at nearby Boeing Field was 29 mph. But looking at other atmospheric conditions they think it was kind of a microburst event, and could have had gusts up to 50 mph potentially. But these power poles should have been strong enough to withstand that type of wind. …They found these two poles were only 33 percent and 57 percent as strong as what they once were when they were installed. So these two poles fell and put a lot of pressure and torque on the poles they were wired to. …The whole string fell down like a row of dominos.”

On why the poles were rotted: “What they’re saying is rot can be caused by a lot of things. Three of these six poles at the center did have damage from beetles."

On what the agency is going to do now: “(Seattle City Light) says there are about 6,000 poles spread out evenly around the area that are rated one, two or three…and they want to replace those quicker. ...They’re probably not going to be replaced in a month. It’s probably going to take a year to three years. In the last eight or nine years, they’ve replaced about 11,000 poles. It’s not cheap, it’s going to cost tens of millions of dollars. On average each pole costs $13,000. They say they won’t raise rates, but other capital improvement projects will have to either be delayed or put off.”

On the close call that left only two people injured: “Really, it seems remarkably lucky that nothing worse happened from this incident — 60-foot logs of timber fell over on a normally pretty busy street. They were all carrying live electrical wires. I don’t know if you want to say miraculous, but it’s almost miraculous that things weren’t worse.”

We also spoke with Seattle City Light general manager and CEO Debra Smith, who says being "extremely responsive to our customer owners" as a community-owned utility is a top priority. "And the things that are most important to our customers are safety and reliability," Smith said.

Smith stressed that a top priority in her role as CEO is to look at those needs comprehensively through the customers' eyes. 

Listen above to the full remarks from Smith, who shared details of the utility's strategy for replacing the power poles, as well as the entire conversation with Gutman. 

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.