CHICO, Calif. (CN) — Acknowledging a $3.5 million fine for 84 deaths is woefully inadequate, a Butte County judge on Thursday nevertheless imposed the harshest penalty allowed under law against Pacific Gas and Electric for causing the most destructive wildfire in California history, the 2018 Camp Fire.
“If these crimes were attributed to an actual human person rather than a corporation, the applicable sentence would be 90 years to be served in state prison,” Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems said.
The sentence was handed down after a full day of heart wrenching testimony, in which family members described recurring nightmares of imagining their loved ones being burned alive in a raging fire sparked by equipment that PG&E failed to adequately inspect or maintain.
The judge explained that his sentencing options are limited because corporations cannot be sent to prison. Deems endorsed the views expressed by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation for crimes related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. During a May 28 probation hearing, Alsup said, “If ever there was a corporation that deserved to go to prison, it’s PG&E.”
Lacking the power to send the 23,000-employee company to state prison, Deems said a maximum $3.5 million fine was his only option. He also required PG&E to reimburse the Butte County District Attorney’s Office $500,000 in investigation costs.
PG&E consented to those terms in March when it agreed to plead guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of recklessly starting the Camp Fire. The company has also committed to pay up to $15 million over five years to restore the Miocene Canal, which was damaged by the fire, according to the DA’s Office.
Before the sentence was imposed, Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey explained why no PG&E executives were prosecuted for causing the most deadly and destructive fire in California history. California law does not allow executives to be held criminally liable for the actions of a corporation unless they have personal knowledge of the criminal behavior, he said.
Significant wear on a C-hook that snapped off a transmission tower and ignited the Camp Fire could have been spotted by adequate inspections over the last 50 years, he said. Hundreds of employees could have observed the dangerous situation, but no employee documented the unsafe condition of that component, he said.
Decisions on inspection and maintenance policies were made by committees, “virtually eliminating individual responsibility,” Ramsey explained. Two PG&E divisions were separately charged with maintaining transmission towers and power lines, but neither division took responsibility for reviewing the condition of C-hooks, he said.
Furthermore, many decisions that ultimately led to the Camp Fire were made in the 1980s, ‘90s and ‘00s.
“It would have been almost impossible to prove the person making the decisions in say 1995 knew the decisions were creating a risk of fire some 20 years later and that they either disregarded or ignored that risk,” Ramsey said.
However, the DA said that PG&E executives are now on notice. He compared it to the Watson admonition, which warns those convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol that operating a vehicle in that condition could kill someone. This lays the foundation to convict a person for murder if they kill someone by driving under the influence in the future.
“I understand that being under the influence of greed and profit or both impairs my ability to safely operate an inherently dangerous business such as delivering high energy power,” Ramsey said, reading the admonition to PG&E executives.
Incoming interim PG&E CEO William L. Smith, a former AT&T executive who will replace outgoing CEO William Johnson on July 1, told the court Thursday that PG&E accepts responsibility and is committed to making sure its equipment never causes another catastrophe like the Camp Fire again.
“On behalf of everyone at PG&E, I am truly sorry for the terrible loss of life and the physical and emotional damage resulting from the fire,” Smith said.
Smith added that the company is “working tirelessly” to keep communities safe by improving its processes, hardening its power system, and incorporating advanced technology to detect high-risk weather conditions more rapidly.
“While nothing will repair the wounds caused by the Camp Fire, we hope the actions we are taking will begin to restore the trust of our communities and their confidence that we are working to keep them safe,” Smith said.
The Camp Fire started on Nov. 8, 2018 when a worn C-hook snapped off PG&E’s transmission tower #27/222 on the Caribou Palermo line in Butte County, causing a 115-kilovolt power line to arc against the tower, sending sparks flying onto the dry grass and brush below.
The fire burned more than 153,000 acres, wrecked 18,800 buildings and destroyed the town of Paradise while also burning large portions of the communities of Concow and Magalia in Butte County.
PG&E’s sentencing comes on the heels of a federal judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit challenging California’s $21 billion “bailout” insurance fund to help protect private utilities from future wildfire liabilities.
The insurance account, created by Assembly Bill 1054, will be equally funded by private utility shareholders and ratepayers through a $2.50 monthly surcharge on utility bills.
In a 17-page ruling issued Wednesday night, U.S. District Judge James Donato found the federal court lacks jurisdiction to review the case because the California Public Utilities Commission used an adequately fair process to approve added charges to customers’ utility bills. The decision is being appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
A further hearing on restitution for the crimes is scheduled for Jan. 15, 2021.