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Roundtable: Accident-Prone Navy; Paying For Wildfires; Change In Mission Valley

Damage to the port side is visible as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steers toward Changi naval base in Singapore following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC on Monday.
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton AP
Damage to the port side is visible as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steers toward Changi naval base in Singapore following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC on Monday.
Roundtable: Accident-Prone Navy; Paying For Wildfires; Change In Mission Valley
Naval Accidents, Wildfire Costs, Mission Valley's FuturePANELTony Perry, freelance reporter Jeff McDonald, Watchdog reporter, San Diego Union-Tribune Tom Fudge, editor/reporter, KPBS News

MS: There is an accident in the Pacific Fleet, the fourth setback since January. People are searching for answers. There is a surprising recommendation of who should pay the cost for the wildfires. Mission Valley is on the verge of a major transformation but to what? I am Mark Saur. The KPBS Roundtable starts now. Welcome to our discussion to the weeks top stories. Joining me today is Jeff McDonnell. JM: Hello. MS: It is good to see you. Tony Perry TP: Hello. MS: Tom Fudge, the new editor. TF: Hello. MS: The Navy is searching for answers following the fourth accident resulting in a total of nearly 20 deaths. The latest involves the John SS McCain which collided with an oil tanker off of Singapore. The major investigation is underway as the public wonders why in the age of GPS comment Navy ships keep slamming into things. They took fast action. TP: Admiral Richardson called for an operational pause for all 277 ships around the world. That will be a standout. Very unusual. I want to say unprecedented but nobody can remember it ever being like this. Down in the chain, they relieved the Admiral of the seventh Fleet based in Japan for his loss of confidence. That is the reason to Canon Admiral. This is a top to bottom investigation. Why? Why with all the gizmos and billions of dollars of electronic gear and well-trained sailors, how did this happen? How did an oil tanker slam into the John S McCain with 10 dead as far as we know? MS: Tell us about the search. It is still going on. They sent divers into the ship and only found one of the bodies. There is a second body that I believe they have, but that leaves eight somewhere probably at sea. When the tanker hit the McCain, it hit at a point where guys sleep. They are lost. We will find out why. Operational pause, they will look at a number of things, training. Were they led well? What about operation? Have we run the Navy so hard for so long that mistakes are happening? Is the equipment -- is it run down? Mechanical and human are the two big kinds of errors you look for. TF: Tony, maybe they need to find sailors who know how to steer a ship. Why this talk to down examination? Is there something endemic? TP: We will find out, we hope. I imagine there will be sequestering by the politicians and we may get more facts. Have we run our military into the ground? There has been testimony in front of Congress and we have trouble keeping airplanes in the sky. We have trouble recruiting pilots. A lot of them are brigades are not considered ready. The chief, general Dunford, and has said to go Max to get a strain to get people in the various services. We will look at that. Maybe that has nothing to do with that. We do not know. TF: One commander addressed that question. He asked it if there was exhaustion in the Navy and he dismissed it. TP: I have heard that accusation made and the dismissal is the answer. That is hard to prove. I know one of the criticisms you would hear is that they are broken after Iraq and Afghanistan. I personally do not believe that but there is an argument to be made that certain aspects are not as sharp as they should be. One thing they will look at is, did they lose navigation equipment at just the wrong time? MS: Was there a cyber-attack involved? TP: They said no but they will look more, even with a cyber attack, you can manually override and get out of the way. There is a problem with Navy ships. They are hard to find. You do not want someone to know where they are. They are not on the maps that are available to a merchant or ships. They are hard to find. Right? For good reason. Did that cause a problem? Of the oil tanker not see this smaller ship? Also, that will be looked at. Should we run running lights? When we are in these tight spaces? We run ships in tight spaces. Down to the South? MS: You in at mentioned the Admiral at the beginning. How much will follow him? TP: All of it. If you are in Admiral or you are in command, you are responsible for everything your people do or fail to do. It is the only way to run these things. That is true if you are an Admiral or commander. When something goes wrong, it is your head. That is the way it works. He may be innocent as we think of it or he may be a scapegoat. MS: You mentioned the chief and naval operations and the standdown of Admiral Richardson. We have a bite from him on this undertaking. Admiral Richardson: This will include but not be limited to looking at operational tempo trends and personnel material and maintenance and equipment. It will also include a review of how we train and certify our surface warfare community, including tactical and navigation proficiency. MS: We talked about the latest incident at this year, there has been four incidences. TP: The others did not result in death, thank goodness. Another ship got hit by a Japanese fishing vessel. How does this happen? You cannot blame the other people. You are the United States Navy. You should be able to get away from fishing boats and oil tankers and cargo ships. MS: That was in June. They are looking, is there a common thread? Is there something -- are we looking at small numbers, four out of 277 ships. I do not know. MS: Tell us where this was. You think we are in the middle of the ocean. TP: It is very tight quarters near Singapore. It is a piece of water that is disputed between Singapore and Malaysia. It was the Malaysians who helped but the Malaysians were able to retrieve one of the bodies. This is where we navigate. We navigate close in because if we have to go to war, you do not want to be in the middle of the ocean. We navigate in some of the most heavily congested waterways in the world. The Persian Gulf or the Korean gulf for example. The Moroccan Straits, which the John S McCain was moving towards. That is where we have to be. That is where it is dangerous. TF: It seems to be the fundamental question is what are we doing there? Why does the U.S. Navy have to have a big presence in the South China Sea and that part of the world? TP: If you are not present, you are absent. We are there to stabilize so that Kim Jong-un does not feel he can do anything he wants. TF: Are we trying to keep the Chinese and check? TP: We are trying to do all sorts of things. We are the only country in the world that has taken the responsibility upon itself to shape events in every part of the world. That is a tough call. That is why we have 277 ships. These are better technologically. We are there is a stability. We are there to show Asian countries that we are their friend. We are with you. The other people, the Chinese, do not say we are your better friend. It is a tough call. We made it as a country. This is what happens. Also, look what is happening with the aircraft. The Marines have lost a couple of aircraft. They lost a C-130 and the Army lost a Blackhawk and lots of death. The question again, operational tempo. Are you running the machines too much? Do you have enough well-trained pilots? You have enough young enlisted to do the repairs? Good question. MS: What does that do to invincibility. We are showing a flag and showing the fleet. All of a sudden-- TP: I think the professionals, there are professional people that run navies, including the Iranians. They know stuff happens. They are still respectful of the United States Navy. It is there and it is not going away. We have our nose bloodied here but we are not moving out. MS: We will see what comes of this overview on who got the blame. We will move on. San Diego gas and electric customers pay costs from the devastating 2007 wildfires. That is the recommendation by a panel of judges with the Public Utilities Commission. A recommendation that left utility defiant and angry. Remind us how destructive the wildfires were? JM: They were terrible. They erupted all in one day. Three or four major fires in one day. South County and in the North County and in Fallbrook. People started running for their lives. By noon Thomas some died in the Harris fire. The witch fire started burning West and through brush that had not burned in years. The findings from the utility commission judges is that the utility did not do enough to maintain its equipment and cutting back vegetation after it was determined what caused the fires. MS: The conditions were terrible. It was dry and all of this stuff and areas had not burned and there was plenty of fuel and they were sparked by electrical wires. Three were dead and 2500 structures were lost. This was a terrible fire. JM: Everyone remembers what a nightmare it was for the entire community, 500,000 people left homes. MS: It was a huge effect. JM: The three fires that were caused by the faulty equipment and the failure to maintain the equipment killed two people and destroyed more than 1000 homes or something like that. The utility called it a natural disaster and argued before the commission that they did everything they were supposed to do and it was an act of God. The judges did not buy that. TP: What is the next route? Litigation? ] JM: That has been going on for years. The vast majority of the victims got paid off but not made whole. This recommendation is just that. It will go to the full commission. The utility will lobby the commission as best it can. That decision is expected later this year although they do have a delay. TP: Is at the money that they are worried about or a precedent they are worried about? It sounds like a lot of money to us but to the utility, it seems like that is doable. Are they worried about a precedent being set? JM: I do not know that they worry. I think it is about the money. I think they can add $4 million, that is best for the shareholders as far as they see it. They believe that they did everything they could to prevent the fires. Obviously, the victim community and the consumer advocate people do not agree. They cited evidence that showed they failed to cut back trees and knew about threats they did not take seriously enough. They did not respond in the same way in 2007 as to the threat in 2003 according to some of the testimony. According to the judges, there were lots of reasons they should not be able to bill ratepayers. TF: You have a couple of administrative -- they say no. It was your fault and you need to pay up. Now it goes to the CPUC. What is your reader the politics? What kind of a chance does SDG&E have to get them to say, thank you for your decision but we will come to a different conclusion. JM: Far be it from me to read what the commission will do. They are under a criminal investigation and they have been for some years were being suspected of public corruption in other cases such as the explosion. For years, they have been accused of being a captured regulator. They constantly rule in favor of the utilities. They historically tend to get what they want because they persistent and it is an archaic system and very few people know how to play. The rules are very complicated. So, I can see where they would feel confident that they will recover the money but they have been trying for years to get this. It is only 400 million but they have been trying to get this money since 2010 and they have been rebuffed. They keep coming back. TF: The settlement that that they had to pay out was $2.4 billion? JM: Yes. A lot of that was covered by insurance. They got half 1 million -- excuse me, billion with a B from other parties deemed to be responsible for the wildfires and the $379 million they are seeking is their calculation of the cost. [ OVERLAPPING SPEAKERS] TP: Every Saturday afternoon in October, seriously, could this happen again? Have a prepared and what about fire protection? JM: Of course, it could have it again. Have a prepared, it depends on who you ask. Some people in a fire prevention community, not so much. They want more resources. We have to wait and see. There is climate change and there can conditions that could come up. MS: Jeff, these judges hear a lot of testimony. They looked at this case closely. What did they determine that the utilities should have done to stop the risk and to minimize the risk of the wildfire? JM: They should have trimmed the vegetation that comes within the length -- these are electrified wires. The high wind arc and they can spark vegetation. They are required to maintain those. [ OVERLAPPING SPEAKERS] JM: They find that out and they have a schedule. They did not adhere to the schedule in the Fallbrook case. They were warned that the tree was vulnerable to coming in contact with energized lines in a did not trim it fast enough. They were imprudent and unreasonable as far as the judges were concerned. MS: Have they undergrounded a lot of the stuff? Have they tried to minimize the risk by getting rid of the wires and doing it a different way? JM: They have not. MS: It is very costly. JM: The access to the equipment is inhibited when you bury it. There are reasons they resist underground but that would solve the fire threat. TP: The rural areas still depend on volunteer firefighters. People sell real estate teach third grade and they get a colony say there is a fire. We really have not gone -- we have not professionalized. JM: No, we have not. It's not funny but San Diego County spends as much on fire production assaying large County and they have made them one County authority and they are trained with urban fires. MS: We are about out of time but that is another segment as we move deeper into fire season we will come back in a few weeks. I want to move on. It is the dense challenge with opportunity. We know in it as Mission Valley. The farms have given way to freeways and big malls and big-box stores and traffic congestion. The trolley, endless residential development and the coming death of QUALCOMM Stadium. What is next? We talk about the enormous challenge facing the Mission Valley planning group, which people have probably not heard of. TF: What they are tasked to do, going back a little bit, you described the history extremely well. Ever since the Spanish founded the mission in the 18th century, it has been very much a central part of San Diego. It has been farmland and then I-8 came in and you have the Mission Valley mall and it is a suburban shopping destination. A couple of things are happening. Political and economic. On the economic side, retail is overbuilt. We know this because of online shopping. You do not need the big box stores or the department stores that you used to need. That has an effect on Mission Valley. MS: They built of them like crazy. TF: We saw Macy's go out of business. So, economics tells us something has to be done. The stores are going to close down and something has to be put in its place. The political and says we need housing. Mission Valley is being looked at as one way to solve San Diego's housing problem. Currently, there are 20,000 people who live in Mission Valley, but based on what we call the community plan update, it is supposed to be done by the end of next year, the figure is supposed to double to 40,000 people. You have to decide where they are going to go. Where they live? MS: You brought up a Segway. We have Rob and we will hear what he says. Rob: They went through a transformation from farmland to a regional center that is transitioning to a community. That is what is happening. We see a change from the big box retail's which is important to San Diego but now you see people living in the community and the expectation to double the population in the next few decades, where will they go? MS: You look at fires Road and the trolley and it seems well-connected but experts say no. TF: The problem with Mission Valley as one person put it, it was developed as islands. People said we want a Best Buy here so they put a Best Buy there but they did not spend time thinking about, how that was going to connect to the Target that is 200 yards away. MS: And no way to get there. TF: Really come no decent way to get there. You do not want to get there on foot or on a bicycle. One architect I talked to said that Friars Road is a good example of what is wrong with Mission Valley. It is something that encourages congestion rather than solves it because that is the only connecting road between slots of different places. If you want to make Mission Valley a place to live, you need a number things. It needs amenities and parks. There is no school in Mission Valley. If you're going to make it less dependent on automobiles, you have to find a way for people to get around on foot or on a bike. You know to those who think that we are trying to make it less automotive because this is liberal politicians who do not like cars, you have to understand economics is driving that. When you have a car dependent place, what do you need? Parking lots which are empty most of the time and are not making money and are not generating tax revenue. That is another thing that people want to change. It is driven by politics and economics. TP: What about QUALCOMM Stadium? It will be a monument about the team that hurt is so badly? TF: In this story that I did, I did not talk much about QUALCOMM. Basically, QUALCOMM is a question mark. What is it going to be SoccerCity? That is a possibility. Is San Diego State going to become the developer and turn it into something different? We do not know. MS: The planning group does not have much of a say because the vote may go to the people. TP: There are economic interests that are ready to scuttle anything that is in not their interest? TF: Sure. You have to keep that in mind. You know, I did want to mention one place which is a big housing development that is well underway which is Civita, it used to be a rock quarry. Eventually, they say it will have a population of 9000 people and the developers are doing what is in its economic interest. At the city, they decided that what is good for them is good for us. TP: Where is Kevin Faulkner? Is the leading or following? Is he doing anything at all? TF: It is interesting that it never occurred to talk to him. I do not think he is leading. This is a process that at this point, it is driven by developers and by the Mission Valley Planning Group. Where Kevin Faulkner is, I think we know where he is on the QUALCOMM Stadium. [ OVERLAPPING SPEAKERS ] MS: He was backing SoccerCity. TF: We heard from him on that. In terms of the development of Mission Valley, he has been silent. MS: You mentioned Civita. It is on the north end of QUALCOMM Stadium. They are talking about putting a connector across. That is a big problem, is in it getting North and South across the big Valley? TF: When I was there and I talked to the developer, he spent time talking about the green line trolley and how they want to connect to the green line trolley. He drew lines saying this is 200 yards in the trolley and this is a quarter-mile but the problem at this point is Friars Road, that road that is notoriously hard to cross is between the development and the trolley. What they say they are going to do is build a pedestrian bridge across Friars Road and they think that will solve the problem. TP: What about Manchester? TF: It is not his property anymore. He sold it. The old UT property is going to become housing, I know. How many units? I want to say 400 units, but I might have that wrong. That is a housing development. JM: Traffic wise, it is terrible. If 20,000 people live there let alone work there. MS: That is a small city. JM: They will not get anywhere. TF: People say what you need is you need to make it easier to bicycle and walk and make more of the trolley system, the trolley stops in Mission Valley can be hard to find. They have no major road that will take you there. MS: You need more of them. TF: One guy says you need more stops along the line also. One thing about Mission Valley in terms of traffic that is interesting to me is how difficult it is to get North and South. If you want to navigate on a bicycle, they are building this bike lane down. MS: We will come back at another show. We just ran out of time. That is an excellent point. There is plenty more to talk about. That wraps up a week of stories at KPBS Roundtable. I would like to thank my guess, attorney. He and Tom Fudge. Reminder, the stories we discussed are available on www.kpbs.org. Anytime you want to hear it, wherever you get your podcast, look for us.

NAVY'S COLLISION COURSE

The Story

A U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, collided with an oil tanker three times its size off the coast of Singapore on Monday.

Ten sailors are reportedly missing from the McCain.

The collision, the fourth accident since January involving U.S. Navy ships in the Pacific, has resulted in a rare two-day suspension of all naval ship operations and the removal of the admiral of the Seventh Fleet.

The Navy is investigating the role that training, manning and communications may have had in the collisions.

In June, seven sailors were killed aboard the destroyer USS Fitzgerald. No one was killed in two earlier accidents involving the USS Champlain and the USS Antietam.

The four 2017 incidents took place in different waters, at different times of the day and under different conditions.

Naval accidents are believed to have killed more troops in 2017 than Afghanistan.

The Conversation

-What is it about the Pacific Fleet that could cause these failures?

-How is our prestige in the Asia-Pacific region affected by these accidents?

Related: Commander of Naval Fleet Relieved of Duty After Collisions

Related: Navy Navigation Errors May Have Killed More Troops Than Afghanistan So Far in 2017

WHO PAYS FOR WILDFIRES?

The Story

It's been nearly 10 years since the 2007 San Diego County wildfires killed three people, burned some 2,500 homes and buildings and forced the evacuation of 500,000 people and an unknown number of animals.

SDG&E has been asking the California Public Utilities Commission to agree that its customers should pay the wildfire costs not covered by insurance — some $379 million.

This week, two administrative judges recommended the CPUC reject SDG&E’s request.

SDG&E was not pleased, saying the recommendation was not supported by the facts and that the fires were caused by circumstances beyond the utility’s control.

The judges, however, said SDG&E failed to show that it acted reasonably to manage and properly maintain its equipment. They called its management “imprudent.”

The Conversation

-How likely is it that the full CPUC will agree with the judges' recommendations?

-If so, does SDG&E have further legal recourse?

Related: Judges: Reject SDG&E bid to charge customers for $379 million in wildfire costs

VALLEY MISSION

The Story

Mission Valley began the 20th century as a big, long meadow full of dairy cows.

Over the years, it was built up piecemeal as a series of unrelated islands — a shopping center here, another there, a few hotels on the south side, a stadium and apartments on the north. And, of course, a river runs through it.

The housing crisis, loss of the Chargers, a new emphasis on transit and climate, and the faltering of brick-and-mortar retail have all contributed to a new interest in what to do with this sprawling, congested strip of valuable land.

As the area gets ready for a community plan update by the end of 2018, the questions are huge:

-What to do with Qualcomm, the shopping centers and big-box stores and their asphalt seas of parking spaces?

-How to connect one “island” to another?

-How to make better use of the trolley?

-What to do about Friars Road?

For openers.

The Conversation

-How did Mission Valley become such a mishmash? Where was city planning?

-Does the citywide vote on SoccerCity render the Mission Valley community plan moot?

Related: Another Turning Point For Mission Valley

Related: San Diego Malls Ride A Changing Retail Wave