PG&E faces criminal charges over California wildfire

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Northern California prosecutors on Friday filed criminal charges against Pacific Gas & Electric in connection with the deaths of four people last year in a wildfire linked to utility equipment.

The Shasta County District Attorney has laid the charges – including manslaughter, as well as other felonies and misdemeanors – in connection with the Zogg fire, which burned more than 56,000 acres and destroyed 204 buildings near Redding.

An investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection determined that the fire was caused when a pine tree came in contact with power lines owned and operated by PG&E. PG&E said it cooperated with the investigation.

“Although criminal prosecutions against companies are rare, one of the main reasons for criminalizing a company is that illegal behavior is widespread, serious, offensive and offensive. he is so persuasive that the only appropriate action is to lay criminal charges, ”Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie A. Bridgett said at a press conference Friday. “My office made such conclusions. “

“PG&E as a utility has legal and regulatory obligations to mitigate the risk of fire by removing dangerous trees around their power lines,” she added. “In this case, they did not fulfill their legal obligations. Their failure was reckless and criminally negligent, and resulted in the deaths of four people. “

Ms Bridgett said the case against PG&E included arson charges in three other fires last year and this year. She said her office will seek sanctions that may include fines, fees, and corrective and corrective action.

Patricia K. Poppe, chief executive of PG&E, who joined the company in January, said in a statement Friday that the utility has disputed the charges. “It may be satisfying for the PG&E company to be charged with a felony,” she said, but “we welcome our day in court.”

Last year, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in connection with the 2018 camp fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, and was fined $ 3.5 million. of dollars, the maximum penalty permitted by state law. The blaze led the utility, which had amassed $ 30 billion in liability for forest fires caused by its equipment, to file for bankruptcy in January 2019.

The Zogg fire was started two months after PG&E emerged from bankruptcy in July of last year. PG&E is believed to have caused three fires this year, including the Dixie Blaze – the second largest blaze in California history – in July.

PG&E has been on probation since his first criminal conviction, in 2016, for a gas pipeline explosion six years earlier in the town of San Bruno, in San Bruno Bay. The explosion killed eight people.

In April, the Sonoma County District Attorney charged PG&E with five felonies and 28 misdemeanors, including causing a fire with serious bodily harm, in connection with the Kincade fire, which damaged or destroyed more than 400 buildings and seriously injured six firefighters in 2019.

The utility has worked to rebuild its image – by upgrading equipment, developing forest fire prevention programs, and increasing tree pruning – but many government officials and residents argue the company has failed. The utility has resorted to blackout during extreme weather conditions, sometimes leaving millions of people without power for a week, to prevent its equipment from starting fires.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and others have urged the state to turn PG&E into a customer-owned utility. Others, like the city of San Francisco, lobbied for a government-run operation.

To help address some of the concerns, California last year established a wildfire fund, which provided a source of back-up funding for PG&E and the other two investor-owned utilities, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric. The fund was designed to cover wildfire related liabilities that are beyond the ability of utilities to pay damages and to help prevent them from going bankrupt.

The California Public Utilities Commission is reviewing the circumstances of the Zogg fire and the liability of PG&E. The commission could impose fines in addition to legal sanctions. Regulators fined PG&E nearly $ 2 billion for causing wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including the campfire.

Utilities have been required to pay criminal penalties and fines by state regulators using their shareholders’ money.


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