CHICO, Calif. (CN) — Staring at pictures of the faces of 84 people killed in a deadly fire sparked by his company’s equipment, Pacific Gas and Electric’s chief executive on Tuesday pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of recklessly starting the most destructive wildfire in California history.
“PG&E will never forget the Camp Fire and all that it took from the region. We remain deeply, deeply sorry for this event and the tragic consequences,” PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said in Butte County criminal court Tuesday morning.
Standing before Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael R. Deems, Johnson acknowledged that his company’s equipment sparked the deadliest fire in state history, destroying the towns of Paradise and Concow and burning about half of Magalia, an unincorporated community in Butte County.
The 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 grass brush below. The fire burned more than 153,000 acres and destroyed about 18,800 buildings.
Prosecutors say the fire resulted from PG&E’s failure to properly inspect and maintain its century-old equipment.
Johnson said the company has worked “side by side” with Butte County residents and public officials to help the Paradise region rebuild and recover. He said the company is also working to get fire victims paid quickly with $25.5 billion in settlements as part of its bankruptcy plan, which is expected to be approved by the end of June.
“I wish there was some way to take back what happened or to take away the impact, the pain these people have suffered, but that can’t be done,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the company will never forget the lessons learned from the deadly Camp Fire, which is driving “comprehensive changes” at PG&E. He touted improvements to the company’s inspection protocols, efforts to harden its energy system by insulating power lines or burying them underground, and its adoption of advanced technology to better predict high-wind events that can lead to fires.
“We are intently focused on reducing the risk of wildfire in our communities,” Johnson said.
The CEO, who will retire at the end of June after 14 months on the job, said the utility can never replace what the fire destroyed. He said he hopes the company can honor those who were lost and help the community move forward by accepting responsibility, compensating victims, supporting rebuilding efforts and making “lasting changes” to how the company operates.
“Your honor, I make this plea with great sadness and regret and with eyes wide open to what happened and to what must never happen again,” Johnson said.
After Johnson’s three-minute speech, Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey said he appreciated that Johnson did not put his head down or mumble “guilty” as he answered to 84 counts of manslaughter. Johnson looked directly at photos of each victim and clearly stated “guilty, your honor” after the judge read each victim’s name.
“He looked directly at each of the photos and the people applaud him for that,” Ramsey said.
Camp Fire victims and family members of people who died in the fire are expected to testify on Wednesday and Thursday before PG&E is sentenced.
As part of its plea deal, the company agreed to pay the maximum $3.5 million fine, reimburse the Butte County DA’s Office $500,000 for the costs of its investigation, and pay up to $15 million over five years to restore the Miocene Canal.
Because corporations cannot be sent to prison and no individual PG&E executives were prosecuted, Judge Deems’ ability to impose additional penalties is somewhat limited. However, he could get creative like retired U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderon, who ordered PG&E to advertise a prior felony conviction on television and in major newspapers in 2017.
PG&E is still under federal criminal probation for felony convictions related to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed 38 homes.
The California Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E a record $2 billion for its role in starting the 2018 Camp Fire and other destructive fires in Northern California in 2017, but the commission permanently suspended a $200 million portion of the fine due to concerns it might reduce compensation available to pay fire victims.