On Monday, Pacific Gas and Electric plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting the 2018 Camp Fire.
One count for each victim
PG&E also agreed to pay victims of the 2018 Camp Fire, as well as other PG&E responsible wildfires, a total of $13.5 billion. The company also faces a fine of over $3 million, additional payments of ‘hundreds of millions’ to Butte County and the town of Paradise, and has to pay the Butte County District Attorney’s Office $500,000 for their investigation costs.
“They deserved to have more done to them,” said Butte County resident Teri O’Rourke, who had lost two close friends in the 2018 Camp wildfire. “But PG&E was found guilty and found guilty by a lot. Those 85 counts they got. That’s one for each victim, two of whom I personally knew and played bingo with and drove to the hospital and grocery store.”
“In their way, the court let that number be known, and then gave them a huge fine. We were expecting maybe a few billion, but $13 billion is big, even for a large utility.”
“They could have gotten better and deserved better, but they also didn’t make it nothing.”
“Family members will think differently, and survivors next door in Paradise are never going to forgive PG&E. But they didn’t get a slap on the wrist, which is more than many here thought they would get.”
Out of bankruptcy but not out of danger
PG&E has been under severe financial strain since November of 2018. The Camp Fire, which killed 85 and injured dozens of others, caused PG&E to declare bankruptcy the next year. Worried about another large insurance payment, PG&E proceeded to turn off the power for millions in Northern California in an attempt to stop wildfires caused by PG&E structures. The following outcry, as well as continued PG&E mismanagement, led to Governor Gavin Newsom to call for a state takeover unless things improved by June of 2020.
More recently, PG&E had to contend with a California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) report finding that a lack of power line maintenance caused the 2018 fire, a rejection of the PG&E settlement offer by Governor Newsom, a $2.14 billion fine by CPUC and renewed calls by Governor Newsom for a takeover.
PG&E only reached a bankruptcy deal last week with the Governor, where in exchange for getting out of bankruptcy and not being taken over by the state PG&E will have to form a new board, stop all shareholder dividends for three years, and agreed that they could be taken over if certain measures or safety measures were not taken. PG&E is still fighting for a utility bankruptcy-by-wildfire fund that would protect utilities in California in the future.
“This is the end of business as usual for PG&E,” Newsom announced in a statement following the bankruptcy deal. “Through California’s unprecedented intervention in the bankruptcy, we secured a totally transformed board and leadership structure for the company, real accountability tools to ensure safety and reliability and billions more in contributions from shareholders to ensure safety upgrades are achieved.”
Sentencing postponed because of coronavirus delays
Because of the coronavirus, courts are closed, meaning that PG&E’s guilty pleas and sentencing cannot be set until April 24th at the earliest. Butte County Superior Court and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court will also have to agree to the terms.
PG&E has also waived all rights to appeal the case, meaning the guilty plea will stand.