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Illustration by Security Management

PG&E Pleads Guilty to 84 Deaths

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) pled guilty on 16 June to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for deaths caused by the massive 2018 Camp Fire in California.

In Butte County Superior Court, the company admitted that its faulty equipment—a broken suspension hook on a tower caused a power line to fall—ignited sparks on dry grass that culminated in the November 2018 Camp Fire in the Sierra foothills region, an area characterized by more than 100 wineries and strong winds.

PG&E also pled guilty to one count of illegally starting a fire because of repeatedly failing to properly maintain the transmission line. The company said it has updated or replaced some of its older equipment and cleared flammable flora, all to strengthen the safety of its electrical grid.

The guilty pleas were part of a deal that included a maximum fine of $3.5 million, as well as covering the $500,000 cost of the investigation. No PG&E executives, including Bill Johnson as president and CEO, will receive jail time for the deaths that resulted from the wildfire; however, the case is the deadliest U.S. corporate crime to ever be successfully prosecuted, with 84 killed and more than 10,000 homes and 153,000 acres in the area razed by fire.

Within that burn area was the town of Paradise, California, which is expected to take up to 10 years to completely restore. A full report of the investigation was also published by the county’s district attorney on 16 June, detailing the extent of the utility’s culpability.

The report described PG&E’s actions as “reckless” and that “PG&E knew of the risk and PG&E ignored the risk by not taking any action to mitigate the risk.”

Many of the fire’s victims were elderly or disabled and some were found dead in their cars as they tried to escape the flames. Some of the survivors say the decision is a slap on the wrist for the company, which is the largest publicly held utility in the country. Previous incidents involving PG&E include a 2016 conviction of safety violations and obstruction of an investigation of a 2010 gas pipeline explosion that resulted in eight deaths.

It is rare for a corporation to admit to a felony or negligence in incidents resulting in fatalities, and such convictions would typically be a death blow for other companies. But PG&E’s customers cannot simply stop doing business with the utility because there are relatively few other power providers in the state.

PG&E previously agreed to settle claims for its role in the fire from insurance and local government agencies for more than $25 billion, with $13.5 billion of the total going to fire victims. As of this article’s publishing, the utility still awaits its sentencing.

The settlements are expected to begin PG&E’s exit from its 2019 Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, which was initiated after wildfire claims against the company reached into billions of dollars. On 17 June, a bankruptcy court approved the company’s $59 billion proposed plan, which included an $8.93 billion debt deal.

California Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) supported the plan and added several conditions aimed at improving PG&E, according to The Los Angeles Times.  As part of the agreement, the utility will add 11 new members to its board of directors, with three previous members remaining, and it will also create local operating regions.

Johnson, who was hired as CEO in April 2019, will retire at the end of the month. Board member William Smith, a retired AT&T executive, will serve as interim CEO until a permanent replacement is hired.

CPUC will also be able to revoke PG&E’s operating license if it continues causing disasters or does not meet its legal responsibilities. Along with paying the settlements and fines incurred from this latest round of criminal charges, the utility is also responsible to its shareholders and ratepayers, as well as tasked with providing power to roughly 16 million customers, upgrading natural gas pipelines and its power grid, and adding solar and wind power to comply with the state’s renewable energy laws.

PG&E plans to continue its unpopular practice of initiating power outages during dangerous weather conditions. Fire season in California started earlier in 2020 and will last longer due to warmer temperatures and less snow, which the state government says also means the potential for more severe fires.

“The length of fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierras and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.