September 24, 2021 11:08 am
Pacific Gas and Electric was charged Friday with manslaughter and other crimes after its equipment sparked a Northern California wildfire last year that killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes, prosecutors said.
It is the latest action against the nation’s largest utility, which pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in a 2018 blaze ignited by its long-neglected electrical grid that nearly destroyed the town of Paradise and became the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century.
In a news conference, Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett announced the 31 charges, including 11 felonies, against the company. She said in July that her office had determined that PG&E was “criminally liable” for last year’s Zogg Fire, which burned near the city of Redding.
Pushed by strong winds, the fire began on Sept. 27, 2020, and raged through the rugged Sierra Nevada and communities, killing four people, burning about 200 homes and blackening about 87 square miles (225 square kilometers) of land.
In March, state investigators concluded that the fire was sparked by a gray pine tree that fell onto a PG&E transmission line. Shasta and Tehama counties have sued the utility alleging negligence, saying PG&E had failed to remove the tree even though it had been marked for removal two years earlier.
PG&E, which has an estimated 16 million customers in central and Northern California, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after its aging equipment was blamed for a series of fires, including the 2018 Camp Fire near Paradise that killed 85 people and destroyed 10,000 homes, and it faced hundreds of lawsuits.
Company officials have acknowledged that PG&E hasn’t lived up to expectations in the past but said changes in leadership and elsewhere ensure it’s on the right track and will do better. They have listed a wide range of improvements that include using more advanced technology to avoid setting wildfires and help detect them quicker.
PG&E also remains on criminal probation for a 2010 pipeline explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area city of San Bruno that killed eight people, giving a federal judge oversight of the company. The judge and California power regulators have rebuked PG&E for breaking promises to reduce the dangers posed by trees near its power lines.
PG&E emerged from bankruptcy last summer and negotiated a $13.5 billion settlement with some wildfire victims. But it still faces both civil and criminal actions.
The Sonoma County district attorney’s office filed charges in April over a 2019 blaze that forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate.
In the meantime, most of the roughly 70,000 victims who have filed claims for devastation caused by PG&E’s past misdeeds still are awaiting payment from a trust created during the bankruptcy. The trust, which is run independently of PG&E, is facing a nearly $2 billion shortfall because half its funding came in company stock.
PG&E CEO Patti Poppe released the following statement Friday after the charges were announced by the Shasta County district attorney:
“We are all devastated by the effects of wildfire here in California. My heart aches. I have seen firsthand how devastating it is and have spoken with many of those most harmed. These communities are the hometowns where my coworkers live and work, too. While I am new to this environment, I hope my heart never becomes hardened to the devastation that catastrophic wildfire can cause.
I came to PG&E to make it right and make it safe, which is a commitment that my 40,000 coworkers and contract partners all share. We’ve already resolved many victim claims arising from the Zogg Fire, along with the claims by the counties of Shasta and Tehama. And we are working hard to resolve the remaining claims.
We’ve accepted CAL FIRE’s determination, reached earlier this year, that a tree contacted our electric line and started the Zogg Fire. We accept that conclusion. But we did not commit a crime.
Today’s climate and unprecedented drought have forever changed the relationship between trees and power lines. And please know we’re not sitting idly by. We have established a new standard for our lines and the vegetation near them because it poses such a real risk to our communities.
For example, on the Zogg Fire, the tree that started the fire is one of over 8 million trees within striking distance to our lines. Here are a few other facts.
Between October 2018 and last year’s Zogg Fire:
- Two trained arborists walked this line and independent of one another determined the tree in question could stay.
- We trimmed or removed over 5,000 trees on this very circuit alone.
- This year we will remove 300,000 trees statewide.
This vital safety work is all done by real people who are trying every day to do the right thing. Trained, professional people – my PG&E coworkers and our extended contractor family. Arborists, specifically, are trained professionals and sometimes, just like doctors or architects, they can have professional differences. There will be debates about the facts around the tree that started the Zogg Fire. Professional debate in the service of doing what is right and continuously improving.
This was a tragedy, four people died. And my coworkers are working so hard to prevent fires and the catastrophic losses that come with them. They have dedicated their careers to it, criminalizing their judgment is not right. Failing to prevent this fire is not a crime.
Right now, PG&E is:
- Investing more than $1.4 billion this year alone in vegetation management;
- Removing 300,000 trees and trimming 1 million more;
- We’re working toward burying 10,000 miles of power lines;
- We’re installing remote and micro grids to eliminate the wires altogether; and
- We’re reestablishing and building our system to a new standard of resilience that keeps our communities safe and powered as our climate continues to change around us.
We are seeing signs of progress. For example, even during this year, with extreme drought conditions, we have reduced our ignitions over 50%.
That is our best ever performance since we have been tracking this and yet, we are still dissatisfied. That’s why we are not going to stop there.
We’re putting everything we’ve got into preventing wildfires and reducing the risk. Though it may feel satisfying for the company of PG&E to be charged with a crime, what I know is the company of PG&E is people, 40,000 people who get up every day to make it safe and to end catastrophic wildfire and tragedies like this.
Let’s be clear, my coworkers are not criminals. We welcome our day in court so people can learn just that.”
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