By Todd Guild of The Pajaronian
Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) on Tuesday pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting a fire.
The rare acknowledgment of corporate culpability brought to an end two-years of litigation that stemmed from the Nov. 8, 2018 blaze, which burned more than 150,000 acres, razed the town of Paradise, destroyed more than 18,000 structures and killed 85 people.
Standing in Butte County Superior Court, PG&E CEO and President Bill Johnson said he was there to “accept responsibility for the fire here that took so many lives and changed these communities forever.”
“I have heard the pain and the anguish of victims as they’ve described the loss they continue to endure, and the wounds that can’t be healed,” he said. “No words from me could ever reduce the magnitude of such devastation or do anything to repair the damage. But I hope that the actions we are taking here today will help bring some measure of peace.”
Nobody from PG&E will face criminal charges or prison time in the case, as no individuals have been charged. But the company agreed to pay a $3.5 million fine, and a half-million dollars to cover the cost of the investigation.
Court filings refer to PG&E’s “longstanding corporate culture of favoring profits over public safety” and its “ongoing failure to comply with its safety obligations.
”The company has also been accused of failure to remove combustible vegetation from power lines, transformers and other equipment, and failing to update its aging infrastructure.
The Camp Fire was not the first time PG&E has found itself in legal hot water for its role in disasters. It was convicted in 2016 for the gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people.
The company has filed for bankruptcy and is in the process of paying $25.5 billion in settlements to cover damages from the Camp Fire and other fires. The details of that case—which includes $13.5 billion for fire victims—will be completed by June 30.
“I wish there were some way to take back what happened or take away the pain of those who’ve suffered,” Johnson said. “But I know there’s not. What I can say is this: First, PG&E will never forget the Camp Fire and all that it took from this region. We remain deeply, deeply sorry for the terrible devastation we have caused.
”Johnson said that PG&E has worked to help the Paradise region recover and rebuild, and said the company is “ working hard” to compensate the victims. He also discussed the lessons he says PG&E learned from the Camp Fire, and outlined new measures such as improved inspection and operational protocols. The company also is “hardening” its energy system, Johnson said, and is bolstering its technology to better predict and detect extreme weather conditions.
“We know we cannot replace all that the fire destroyed,” Johnson said. “We do hope that by pleading guilty and accepting accountability, by compensating victims and supporting rebuilding efforts, and by making significant, lasting changes in the way we operate, we can honor those who were lost and help this community move forward.”