PG&E to Plead Guilty to Manslaughter in California Wildfire
“They decimated my entire town. To me, this is just a drop in the bucket for what should be happening to PG&E.”
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) will plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of starting the 2018 Camp Fire, the company announced Monday. In a plea deal reached with the State of California, the company will be fined “no more than $3,486,950” plus attorney costs for the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, $500,000, CNN reported.
‘Drop in the Bucket’
The plea arrangement, dated March 17, is pending approval by the state and bankruptcy courts, Olivia Rosane reported for EcoWatch. Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would approve of a plan for the company to remerge from bankruptcy, a status it has endured since the January 2019 as a result of liability for wildfires across the state from 2016 to 2018. The Camp Fire, named for the road it started on, was the deadliest in state history.
The prior Chapter 11 agreement mandated a $13.5 billion fund for victims and their families, many of who lost their homes and businesses. In the case of Paradise, the entire town was eliminated by the Camp Fire.
“They decimated my entire town,” said Kirk Trostle, Paradise resident. “To me, this is just a drop in the bucket for what should be happening to PG&E.”
Initially, the company declined to accept responsibility for the entire series of wildfires, only calling it a probability, according to CNN. However, an investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire) determined PG&E was liable due to equipment malfunctions.
Zero Inspections Contributed to Cause
For the Camp Fire, an electrical wire snapped, sparking a fire on Nov. 8, 2018, that killed 85 people and destroyed 11,000 homes, Alberto Luperon reported for Law & Crime. After the nearly year-long investigation, the company has publicly admitted responsibility for it.
“On November 8, 2018, the Camp Fire destroyed the towns of Paradise and Concow, impacted Magalia and other parts of Butte County and took the lives of more than 80 people,” said PG&E Chief Executive Bill Johnson. “Thousands lost their homes and businesses. Many others were forced to evacuate and leave their lives behind. Our equipment started the fire. Those are the facts, and with this plea agreement we accept responsibility for our role in the fire.”
The tower that malfunctioned was more than a century old and PG&E had neglected to inspect if for nearly 20 years, EcoWatch reported. Investigators found “visible wear” on the arms of a tower involved in the fire and noted that the lack of climbing inspections was “a violation of PG&E’s own policy requiring climbing inspections on towers where recurring problems exist,” The LA Times reported.
The downed wire was not the only factor, however, in starting the Camp Fire. “The tinder dry vegetation and Red Flag conditions consisting of strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures promoted this fire and caused extreme rates of spread,” CAL Fire said in a statement.
Putting the Incident in the Past
Moving forward, PG&E has agreed to change its financial structure, oversight, and board selection procedures, as part of the bankruptcy terms according to CNN. The company must also allocate $15 million for water for residents who were impacted by the fire after it destroyed the Miocene Canal.
“We cannot replace all that the fire destroyed, but our hope is that this plea agreement, along with our rebuilding efforts, will help the community move forward from this tragic incident,” Johnson said in a statement.
The guilty plea PG&E intends to submit could facilitate easier compensation for victims, Rosane wrote. However, the plea deal also closes the door on any future criminal lawsuits related to the Camp Fire, the company reported in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Law & Crime reached out to Butte County prosecutors to determine why the company is only pleading to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter rather than 85, but the office did not respond.