On Tuesday, utility provider Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) entered a guilty plea for 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter over 84 people dying during the 2018 Camp Fire.
84 counts of involuntary manslaughter
PG&E executives confessed to the companies equipment accidentally starting the fire in November of 2018, adding another count of unlawfully starting a fire. Corporate wrongdoing, such as neglecting power line maintenance, was also revealed Tuesday, putting blame of the fire without a doubt on PG&E.
During the court session, Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems also read the names of the 85 victims who were killed during the Camp Fire in Paradise, with pictures of each victim being shown
“Our equipment started that fire,” said PG&E CEO Bill Johnson in the Butte County Superior courtroom. “PG&E will never forget the Camp Fire and all that it took away from the region.”
As PG&E is a corporation and can only pay a fine as opposed to a jail sentence, prosecutors drove home the billions in damages and the dozens of people it killed during the wildfire. Prosecutors also noted that profits often didn’t go back into the company for improvements and updates equipment, something that has drawn the ire of state officials, the public, and the media since last year.
“We want this to be impactful because this can’t go on any longer,” said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey in a statement on Tuesday. “There is going to have to be a sea change in PG&E’s method of operation.”
A guilty plea and an upcoming bankruptcy ruling
Tuesday’s guilty plea came only a few weeks after the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved of their chapter 11 plan to get out of bankruptcy. PG&E has agreed to pay for more than $25 billion in settlements and claims, $13.5 of which is going to victims alone. The bankruptcy plan also outlines more regulatory and state oversight, the PG&E board being mostly replaced, increased safety measures, more safety positions, having executive pay be tied to safety performance and meeting customer needs, not issuing a stock dividend until debt is significantly down, and not raising customer rates to pay for any of the problems that PG&E has caused or ignored.
CEO Bill Johnson will also vacate his position at the end of the month.
PG&E has until the end of June to get out of bankruptcy. If they do not, the company will be ineligible for state wildfire funds, which would disrupt their bankruptcy plans. Governor Gavin Newsom has threatened a California state takeover should the deadline be missed. However, the bankruptcy court is widely expected to rule that PG&E is out of bankruptcy by the end of the month.
“The guilty pleas today are for responsibility over the fire, but they also help prove to the bankruptcy court that they are a company that takes responsibility now,” noted former environmental lobbyist Margaret Horner. “I’ve seen a lot of companies do this before when there were concurrent cases. PG&E, as a company, most likely feels terrible about starting the fire and what it could have done in hindsight.”
“They’re only paying $4 million in the Butte County court for fines and court costs, but they have payed an extremely high amount in other places.”
“The bankruptcy court will see this as more of its penance for getting out of bankruptcy.”
Judge Deems is due to formally sentence PG&E by the end of the week.
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