Power company PG&E to plead guilty to 84 deaths from California wildfire

No executives will be charged meaning no one will be imprisoned for the crimes

Louise Boyle
New York
Tuesday 16 June 2020 20:23
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Police officer films walk through Northern California Camp Fire to capture his 'last moments'

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) was expected to plead guilty on Tuesday to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter for its role in the 2018 California wildfire that killed 85 people and decimated the town of Paradise.

The court hearing in Chico will see the US's largest utility face the consequences of its neglect that resulted in the blaze, dubbed Camp Fire. The wildfire was ignited by PG&E's faulty electrical grid which it had failed to maintain despite the surrounding area being heavily forested and prone to high temperatures and strong winds.

The hearing before Superior Court Judge Michael Deems comes nearly three months after PG&E reached a plea agreement in November 2018 fire that ripped across the region of Northern California. The fire killed 85 people, but prosecutors weren’t certain they could prove the company was responsible for one of the deaths. Officials ruled that death was a suicide.

It is a rare occurrence for companies to plead guilty to felonies and admit that their failures caused multiple deaths.

PG&E is also reaching the end of a complicated bankruptcy case that the company used to work out $25.5bn in settlements to pay for the damages from the fire and others that torched wide swaths of northern California and killed dozens of others in 2017, the Associated Press reported.

The bankruptcy deals include $13.5bn earmarked for wildfire victims. A federal judge plans to approve or reject PG&E’s plan for getting out of bankruptcy by the end of this month.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey told the AP: “We want this to be impactful because this can’t go on any longer. There is going to have to be a sea change in PG&E’s method of operation.”

The plea will be entered by the company's CEO, Bill Johnson. As the felony counts are read out at the hearing, they will be accompanied by pictures of the Camp Fire victims shown on a big screen. The court hearing will be streamed online.

On Wednesday, surviving relatives of those who died in the 2018 Camp Fire will be invited to make statements to the court. More than 20 people plan to attend in person while others have sent in statements which the DA will read. Judge Deems is expected to formally sentence PG&E on Thursday or Friday.

Besides the mass killings, PG&E also will plead to one felony count of unlawfully causing a fire. No executives will be charged, leaving no one to be imprisoned for the crimes. PG&E instead will pay a maximum fine of $3.5m in addition to $500,000 to cover the costs of the criminal investigation.

The plea agreement also spares PG&E from being placed on criminal probation for a second time. The company is in the midst of a five-year probation for a 2010 explosion in its natural gas lines that blew up a neighbourhood in San Bruno, California and killed eight people. The probation lasts until January 2022.

Since filing for bankruptcy early last year, PG&E claims it has been dramatically altering a corporate culture that prioritised profits for its shareholders over the safety of the 16m people who rely on the utility.

The company says it is being more vigilant about trimming trees around power lines and replacing outdated equipment before it crumbles.

Some measures have been heavily criticised. In 2019, PG&E decided to shut off large parts of its grid when fire conditions were heightened. Millions of people were left without power for days.

As part of a deal with California power regulators, PG&E will replace 11 of its 14 board members. CEO Bill Johnson will step down this month.

Despite PG&E’s pledge, critics are fearful of the upcoming wildfire season after an unusually dry winter in northern California.

Additional reporting from the Associated Press

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