Erin Brockovich: Don’t Let PG&E Slide on Wildfire Costs

At a rally for wildfire victims on the steps of the California Capitol building Jan. 22, Erin Brockovich implores state lawmakers to hold Pacific Gas & Electric liable if it turns out the utility’s equipment caused any of the several fires that have blackened the Golden State in recent years. (Nick Cahill/CNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Adding to a horde of lawsuits from wildfire victims and insurance companies that have sent it spiraling toward bankruptcy, California’s largest utility saw another familiar but powerful foe resurface Tuesday: Erin Brockovich.

The consumer advocate, who spurred a 1990s class lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric over tainted drinking water that resulted in an Oscar-winning Hollywood blockbuster, is once again taking on the San Francisco-based utility. Leading a rally for the survivors of two of California’s deadliest wildfires, Brockovich on Tuesday said California lawmakers should not let PG&E declare bankruptcy and skirt what could be over $30 billion in wildfire liability.   

“Every one of us should be good and mad, and it is time for the state to get to work and show us true leadership in holding this company accountable and making these communities whole again,” Brockovich said on the steps of the state Capitol.

There is widespread speculation that PG&E is responsible for sparking the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties and the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise. While the state hasn’t officially assigned responsibility for the wildfires that killed a combined 108 people, last week a federal judge tentatively ruled PG&E’s equipment played a role in the fires and ordered the utility to re-inspect its electrical grid and shut off power to customers during windstorms. 

Accusations that its faulty power lines sparked numerous Northern California wildfires over the last several years have PG&E in financial peril. Last week, the utility announced it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy while Standard and Poors downgraded PG&E’s credit rating to junk status. PG&E last filed for bankruptcy in 2001 during California’s electricity crisis, leading ratepayers to pick up the tab through higher rates.

Brockovich and lawyers working on the dozens of lawsuits filed against PG&E in various state courts want the state to prevent the beleaguered utility from dumping wildfire liabilities on to ratepayers. They see the pending bankruptcy as a cop-out for PG&E that could leave thousands of fire victims without compensation.

Attorney Joseph Earley, who lost his Paradise home and law office in the Camp Fire and is representing others in civil suits against PG&E, referred to Brockovich as his hero and reminded the crowd that thousands of people are spending the winter homeless in Butte County.

“[Fire victims] are living in tents, cars, leaky trailers and it’s awful. They don’t have a cushion,” Earley said. “If PG&E is to go bankrupt and any way minimize the full recovery that these people deserve, they will have nowhere to go; there are no options for them.” 

Brockovich has teamed up with Earley and former Democratic state Sen. Noreen Evans on behalf of the fire victims. The group wants the Legislature and new Gov. Gavin Newsom to prevent PG&E from entering bankruptcy and to toss legislation that would reduce its wildfire liability.

Last year, former Gov. Jerry Brown approved a bill just before a legislative deadline that roiled consumer advocate groups who painted it as a PG&E “bailout.” Senate Bill 901 allows PG&E and others to pay off certain lawsuit damages with “recovery bonds” meant to reduce bill shock and boost the utilities’ credit ratings. 

Critics said the bill allows new avenues for utilities to pass on costs to ratepayers when they are at fault for starting wildfires. State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Bruno, said on several occasions that the bill wasn’t strong enough and “rewarded” PG&E for bad behavior.

The troubled utility has been on a five-year probation since January 2017, when a federal jury convicted the utility on six counts in connection to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion which killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed 38 homes.

Early in the morning on Nov. 7, 2018, Paradise resident Thomas Wahl returned from a Joan Baez concert and heard a noise outside his home. Someone had placed a notice on his door before dawn that said PG&E was likely to shut of electricity to his home as 50 mph winds were forecast that day.

Camp Fire survivor Thomas Wahl of Paradise, California. Wahl’s home was one of nearly 19,000 buildings destroyed in the blaze, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire to date. (Nick Cahill/CNS)

But while the wind continued to howl that morning, Wahl’s lights stayed on as the sun rose. Wahl’s first glance outside confirmed his fears when read the notice: The winds were driving a wall of smoke toward his neighborhood.

Just hours later, the Camp Fire destroyed Wahl’s home, built in 1910. He narrowly escaped to nearby Chico along with thousands of other survivors.

Wahl traveled to Sacramento to join Brockovich and the other Butte County fire victims, telling Courthouse News that what he misses most are family photos, his rock collection and a case of special-unopened Sierra Nevada beer he had been stashing for a special occasion.

“Those things are irreplaceable, just can’t get them back,” Wahl said. He hopes to rebuild on the same site but said he is still negotiating with his insurance company.

As Wahl and others continue to pick up the pieces and figure out how to rebuild in the country’s wealthiest state, Brockovich promises to lobby the Legislature on their behalf.

“I think we should all be mad and our state leaders should be mad, and it’s going to be up to them to help this process along and hold [PG&E] accountable,” Brockovich said. 

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