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PG&E becomes one of America’s deadliest corporate criminals after guilty plea for 84 deaths in 2018 Camp Fire

PG&E Truck (BrokenSphere/WikiCommons)

PG&E pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing 84 people during the devastating 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, a somber conclusion to a prosecution that showed the utility had failed to learn crucial lessons from the deadly San Bruno explosion and triggered the fatal wildfire.

“Because of PG&E’s reckless and negligent decisions to unreasonably ignore risk, 18,804 structures, including almost 14,000 residential structures were destroyed, and 84 Butte County citizens needlessly lost their lives,” according to an official public report on the Camp Fire released Tuesday by the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.

PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in a case that marks the utility as one of America’s deadliest corporations.

“Our equipment started the fire that destroyed the towns of Paradise and Concow and severely burned Magalia and other parts of Butte County,” PG&E chief executive officer William Johnson said in entering the guilty plea for PG&E.

Johnson, who joined the company last year and will retire at the end of this month, told Judge Michael R. Deems, “I’m here today to take responsibility for the fire that killed these people. I’ve heard the pain and anguish. No words from me can ever reduce the magnitude of that devastation.” Under the terms of a plea agreement, the utility also pleaded guilty to one count of illegally setting what has been California’s deadliest and most destructive blaze.

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PG&E failed to learn lessons that should have become apparent after its flawed record-keeping and shoddy maintenance caused a natural gas line in San Bruno to rupture in September 2010, unleashing a fireball that killed eight and destroyed a neighborhood, according to the report released by prosecutors. In 2016, a federal jury convicted PG&E of six felonies for crimes the utility committed before and after the San Bruno gas explosion. PG&E remains on probation in the San Bruno conviction.

Over the years, PG&E repeatedly has said that it had learned from that catastrophe. But a subsequent probe into the San Bruno case showed that PG&E consistently used the cheapest methods to conduct inspections on its gas system, according to Butte County’s report.

“The philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’,” the report stated. “By ignoring the lessons of San Bruno PG&E condemned itself to another catastrophe.”

A pattern of negligence persisted with PG&E’s electricity system, and the report said that the San Bruno case “somehow had no effect on the electric transmission division.” Even after its conviction in the San Bruno case, the company failed to change practices for its crumbling electricity system.

“Based upon its own history PG&E knew it was creating a high risk of causing a catastrophic fire but, unlike a reasonable person, chose to ignore that risk,” according to the Butte County report.

Chagrined that it is not possible for any individual to be imprisoned because the crimes were committed by a corporate entity, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey is urging the judge in the criminal case to impose the heaviest possible fines on PG&E.

PG&E agreed to pay a $3.5 million fine in the Butte County case. That equates to 0.02 percent of PG&E’s revenue of $17.42 billion for the 12 months that ended on March 31. PG&E generates an average of $47.7 million in revenue every day, or about $2 million an hour.

PG&E’s guilty plea came just days before the company’s bankruptcy case — filed by the utility to help it reorganize finances that had shattered under the pressure of mounting debts and wildfire-linked liabilities — is expected to conclude. Under that plan, the state’s largest utility will pay $13.5 billion to people who lost homes and businesses from wildfires started by its equipment, including the Camp Fire.

State regulators have attempted to punish PG&E in the past for its role in causing the San Bruno explosion and the Northern California wildfires. In 2015, the state Public Utilities Commission levied a $1.6 billion penalty on PG&E for causing the San Bruno explosion, a record-setting regulatory punishment for a U.S. utility company. And in May of this year, the PUC imposed a $1.97 billion penalty on PG&E for its role in the wildfires of recent years, deemed to be the largest financial punishment ever imposed on an American utility.

PG&E’s equipment also has been linked to a fatal fire in Amador County and Calaveras County in 2015 and several deadly infernos in the North Bay Wine Country and nearby regions in 2017.

An investigation revealed that the Camp Fire started after a transmission line broke from a nearly 100-year old PG&E electric tower. PG&E’s inattention to inspecting and repairing that line, known as the Caribou-Palermo line, is what led to the disastrous blaze.

“In essence, in 1930 PG&E blindly bought a used car,” the Butte County report said. “PG&E drove that car until it fell apart. The average reasonable person understands the basic proposition that older equipment needs more attention.”

Instead of conducting regular inspections, repairs and replacements, PG&E pursued a maintenance and repair strategy to “run to failure,” meaning to run equipment until it failed, according to the public report.

“Catastrophic failure of the Caribou-Palermo line was not an ‘if’ question,” the report stated. “It was a ‘when’ question.”

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© 2020 the San Jose Mercury News