SAN RAMON, Calif. (AP) — Pacific Gas & Electric is expected to plead guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter during a court hearing in which the nation’s largest utility will be confronted with its history of neglect and greed that culminated in a wildfire that wiped out most of a Northern California town.
The Tuesday hearing before Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems comes nearly three months after PG&E reached a plea agreement in the November 2018 Camp Fire that was ignited by its rickety electrical grid that destroyed Paradise, about 170 miles (275 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco. The fire killed 85 people, but prosecutors weren’t certain they could prove PG&E was responsible for one of the deaths.
The spectacle will unfold as PG&E approaches the end of a complicated bankruptcy case that the company used to work out $25.5 billion in settlements to pay for the damages from the Camp Fire and others that torched wide swaths of Northern California and killed dozens of others in 2017. The bankruptcy deals include $13.5 billion earmarked for wildfire victims. A federal judge plans to approve or reject PG&E’s plan for getting out of bankruptcy by June 30.
“We want this to be impactful because this can’t go on any longer,” Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey told The Associated Press. “There is going to have to be a sea change in PG&E’s method of operation.”
The hearing will start with a recitation of each felony count while the pictures of all the people who died in the 2018 fire are shown on a large screen set up in the courtroom, according to Ramsey.
The proceedings will continue Wednesday when surviving family members of those who died in the 2018 wildfire will be allowed to make statements before Deems. More than 20 of the family members plan to appear in the court while others have sent in statements that Ramsey plans to read aloud. Deems will formally sentence PG&E on Thursday or Friday, according to Ramsey.
The drama will be streamed online.
Besides the mass killings, PG&E also will plead to one felony count of unlawfully causing a fire. No executives will be charged, leaving no one to imprison for the crimes. PG&E instead will pay a maximum fine of $3.5 million in addition to $500,000 to cover the county’s costs of the criminal investigation.
The plea agreement also spares PG&E from being placed on criminal probation for a second time. The company is in the midst of a five-year probation under the withering supervision of U.S. District Judge William Alsup for a 2010 explosion in its natural gas lines that blew up a neighborhood in San Bruno and killed eight people. The probation lasts until January 2022.
Since filing for bankruptcy early last year, PG&E says it already has been dramatically altering a corporate culture that prioritized profits for its shareholders over the safety of the 16 million people who rely on the utility for power.
The company is being more vigilant about trimming trees around its power lines and replacing outdated equipment before it crumbles, although Alsup has repeatedly scolded PG&E for not doing even more to ensure its grid doesn’t cause more tragedy. As part of a deal with California power regulators, PG&E will replace 11 of its 14 board members. CEO Bill Johnson will step down June 30.
Despite PG&E’s pledge to turn over a new leaf, the utility’s critics fear more danger looms during an upcoming wildfire season after an unusually dry winter in Northern California.
Read the Full Statement below:
“I am here today on behalf of the 23,000 men and women of PG&E, to accept responsibility for the fire here that took so many lives and changed these communities forever.
I have heard the pain and the anguish of victims as they’ve described the loss they continue to endure, and the wounds that can’t be healed. No words from me could ever reduce the magnitude of such devastation or do anything to repair the damage. But I hope that the actions we are taking here today will help bring some measure of peace.
Our equipment started the fire that destroyed the towns of Paradise and Concow and severely burned Magalia and other parts of Butte County. That fire took the lives of 85 people. Thousands lost their homes and businesses, and many others were forced to evacuate under horrific circumstances.
I wish there were some way to take back what happened or take away the pain of those who’ve suffered. But I know there’s not.
What I can say is this: First, PG&E will never forget the Camp Fire and all that it took from this region. We remain deeply, deeply sorry for the terrible devastation we have caused.
Second, since the Camp Fire, we have worked side-by-side with Butte County residents and public officials to help the Paradise region recover and rebuild. That work continues today, and we are doing everything we can to make things right.
Third, we are working hard to get the victims compensated. With our Plan of Reorganization on track to be approved by June 30, their wait may finally be nearing an end. In fact, the Bankruptcy Court has concluded confirmation hearings regarding our Plan. This should be one of the final steps toward paying the $25.5 billion in settlements we’ve reached with wildfire victims, Butte County agencies and others.
Finally, I want to reiterate to the Court and all of the people of the Paradise region that the lessons PG&E learned from the Camp Fire are being taken to heart and are driving comprehensive changes currently underway at PG&E.
We are intently focused on reducing the risk of wildfire in our communities. We have improved our inspection and operational protocols. We are hardening our energy system and making it more resilient. We have incorporated advanced technology to better predict and detect extreme weather conditions. All of this, and more, is being done to help make sure the tragedy that occurred here never happens again, in any of the communities we serve.
In closing, I want to reiterate that on behalf of PG&E, I apologize for the pain we have caused. We know we cannot replace all that the fire destroyed. We do hope that by pleading guilty and accepting accountability, by compensating victims and supporting rebuilding efforts, and by making significant, lasting changes in the way we operate, we can honor those who were lost and help this community move forward.
Your Honor, we make this plea with sadness and regret—and with eyes open to what happened, and to what we must do to make things right.”PG&E Corporation CEO and President Bill Johnson