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California power company pleads GUILTY for 84 deaths in devastating wildfire

California power company pleads GUILTY for 84 deaths in devastating wildfire
Pacific Gas & Electric has pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter, one for almost each life lost in the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest in California history. The company has been blamed for thousands more fires.

A faulty PG&E power cable sparked a blaze on Butte County’s Camp Creek Road in November 2018, and the flames soon tore through forest and town alike. 52,000 people were evacuated, 18,000 buildings destroyed, and 85 killed. The blaze was the deadliest in California history, and the deadliest US fire since 1918.

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In a remote court appearance on Tuesday, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one for each victim except the 85th, whose death the power firm could not be proven responsible for.

As part of the plea deal, PG&E has agreed to pay a maximum fine of $3.5 million for its crimes, on top of $500,000 for the cost of the investigation. 

The company, which has been bankrupt since last January, will also pay $13.5 billion to wildfire victims when it exits bankruptcy this month. However, around half of this settlement will be paid in the form of company stock, leaving the victims owning chunks of a bloated, state-regulated monopoly that’s been blamed for thousands of wildfires and has been threatened with state takeover since the 2018 inferno.

Yet if PG&E comes out of bankruptcy as planned, it will do so at the peak of California’s wildfire season. More than 2,700 fires have already been reported this year, with Cal Fire predicting a longer, drier, and riskier wildfire season. The company has sworn to upgrade its infrastructure and improve its safety policies, but this infrastructure is vast, and PG&E’s track record is poor.

When a PG&E gas pipeline exploded in 2010, killing eight people, investigators found that the firm had overcharged customers and underspent on maintenance, focusing on “the bottom line over everything,” as former California Utilities Commissioner Mike Florio told the New York Times last year.

Seven years later, an exhaustive report by the Utilities Commission found that the company lacked a coherent safety strategy, and only made positive changes when forced into action by fires, explosions, and other accidents.

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Indeed, between 2014 and 2017, accidents involving the company’s equipment triggered more than 1,500 fires throughout California. Short of overhauling its grid, PG&E has taken to shutting off power to prevent lines from sparking. Johnson admitted last year that sporadic blackouts will be a fact of life for another decade.

Customers affected by blackouts or worried about wildfires can’t vote with their wallets and switch electricity providers. As a monopoly, PG&E is the only game in town, and has resisted attempts by local authorities to purchase their power lines. Authorities in San Francisco and San Jose tried this last year, with Johnson calling San Francisco’s offer “too low.”

Blackouts, fires, bankruptcy and manslaughter have hammered PG&E’s image. The Los Angeles Times last year declared the utilities giant a “sorry carcass” and “the most detested, and detestable, corporation in California, if not in the observable solar system.” 

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