PG&E to Plead Guilty to Role in Deadly Camp Fire

Firefighters and deputies carry the body of a Camp Fire victim at the Holly Hills Mobile Estates in Paradise, Calif., in November 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

(CN) – Pacific Gas and Electric will plead guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting the deadly 2018 Camp Fire under a plea deal reached with California prosecutors, the utility giant announced Monday morning.

As part of the deal with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, PG&E will pay $4 million, including a maximum $3.5 million fine and $500,000 to reimburse the DA’s office for costs related to its investigation. Each manslaughter count carries a maximum $10,000 fine, and the maximum for starting a fire is $50,000.

For the next five years, the company will also pay for the restoration of the Miocene Canal, which supplied water to area residents but was destroyed in the fire.

Butte County DA Michael Ramsey said in a statement that he hopes the guilty plea brings finality to victims and at least some sense of “justice done” for the county’s residents.

With the plea agreement, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said the company is accepting responsibility for its role in causing the fire.

“We cannot change the devastation or ever forget the loss of life that occurred,” Johnson said in a statement. “All of us at PG&E deeply regret this tragedy and the company’s part in it.”

The Camp Fire is believed to have been caused when a worn C-hook  snapped off a PG&E tower on the Caribou-Palermo line in Butte County on Nov. 8, 2018, causing the most destructive fire in California history. The blaze scorched 153,000 acres over 17 days, destroying 18,800 buildings and killing at least 85 people.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation by the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, but PG&E acknowledged last year that its equipment likely caused the deadly blaze.

The utility giant has denied allegations that it knew about problems with C-hooks since at least 1987, when a study revealed major problems with C-hooks on a transmission line in Contra Costa County.

A 16-member grand jury assembled in March 2019 worked for almost a year investigating PG&E’s role in the deadly fire without being able to tell their employers, family or friends what they were working on due to the secrecy oath of grand jurors, Ramsey said.

“They carefully listened to nearly 100 witnesses, examined over 1,400 exhibits and produced many thousands of pages of transcript,” the DA said in a statement.

According to Ramsey, PG&E was expected to plead guilty in Butte County Superior Court this Friday, but the recent confirmation of Covid-19 virus cases in the county led to the courthouse being closed. PG&E is expected to enter its guilty plea at a rescheduled hearing on April 24.

The company is currently under a five-year criminal probation term that expires in January 2022 for felony convictions related to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed 38 homes.

As part of its probation, a federal court-appointed monitor is overseeing PG&E’s compliance with its fire safety commitments and related state laws and regulations. Under the terms of its plea deal, the federal monitor will also provide reports to the Butte County DA’s Office on PG&E’s safety performance.

PG&E also agreed to waive its right to appeal its conviction.

Ramsey noted the $4 million fine and extra funds to restore the Miocene Canal will not come out of the $25.5 billion in settlements PG&E has reached with individual fire victims, insurance companies and local government agencies in bankruptcy court.

The plea deal must be approved by a Butte County Superior Court judge and by the federal bankruptcy court.

PG&E’s chief executive said he hopes this plea deal sends a message that the company is taking responsibility for past wrongs and working to ensure its past mistakes are not repeated.

“We want wildfire victims, our customers, our regulators and leaders to know that the lessons we learned from the Camp Fire remain a driving force for us to transform this company,” Johnson said. “We have changed and enhanced our inspection and operational protocols to help make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

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