In a landmark development that marks a victory for California citizens trying to hold the state's largest and most politically influential utility accountable, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter on Tuesday afternoon. The guilty plea marks the end of an investigation into the origins of the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive in California history.
Roughly 18 months ago, we reported on the surreal scenes coming out of the town of Paradise, California, which was swiftly swallowed up by flames as the NorCal 'Camp' Fire. That fire eventually became the deadliest wildfire in the state's history, killing at least 84, including dozens of Paradise residents who couldn't escape in time. The fire spread so quickly, many elderly residents didn't even have a chance to run.
An investigation eventually found that PG&E inadvertently started the fire when a transmission line broke from a nearly-100-year-old Pacific Gas & Electric Tower after years of neglect.
Here's more from the NYT:
In a rare acknowledgment of corporate wrongdoing, PG&E on Tuesday pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for its negligence, ending a two-year ordeal for the families of victims like Ms. Wehe and survivors of the fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise.
PG&E, which had repeatedly failed to maintain the line even though it cut through a forested and mountainous area known to experience strong winds, also pleaded guilty to one count of illegally setting a fire.
In addition to the guilty plea, the California Public Utilities Commission separately fined PG&E almost $2 billion for its negligence in causing the wildfire. What's more, the company could face additional penalties because its guilty plea represents a violation of a federal probation order placed on the company from a 2010 transformer explosion which started a fire that killed 8 people. The federal judge, William H. Alsup, has the power to impose new penalties on the company for violating its probation, according to the NYT.
As it exits bankruptcy, the company has agreed to pay $13.5 billion to settle claims related to the wildfires (it initially declared bankruptcy last January to try and avoid getting whacked with a massive judgment in the ballpark of $30 billion (or at least that's what the company feared at the time).
About half of that number will be paid in the form of company stock, leaving roughly 70,000 wildfire victims owning a little more than 22% of the utility once it leaves bankruptcy.
And so ends another saga of corporate malfeasance and abuse.