PG&E avoids criminal prosecution for starting two fires

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. will avoid criminal charges for two fires caused by its equipment under settlements announced Monday by district attorneys in six Northern California counties.

Prosecutors have said the deals are a better outcome for fire victims and communities, because the limitations of criminal law make it difficult to hold companies accountable. Some community advocates have argued that utility has essentially earned itself the path of guilt.

As part of the agreements, no criminal charges will be filed in connection with last year’s Dixie fire and a 2019 Kincade fire criminal complaint will be dismissed. Together, the fires burned more than 1 million acres in six counties, destroyed more than 1,700 buildings, injured nine firefighters and forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents.

The utility still is accused of the 2020 Zogg fire, which killed four people and destroyed more than 200 buildings when it burned 56,000 acres in Shasta and Tehama counties.

Under the agreements announced on Monday, PG&E does not admit wrongdoing. However, the utility agreed to pay approximately $ 55 million over five years in civil penalties and payments to local nonprofits and education organizations, and to reimburse Sonoma and Butte Counties for the costs of investigating and prosecuting the cases. Costs cannot be passed on to taxpayers. PG&E must also launch a Dixie Fire Victim Program through which those who have lost their homes can submit requests for expedited review, approval and payment.

“Although the criminal charges are dismissed, the level of punishment and supervision provided by this ruling is greater than what could be achieved against a company in a criminal court,” Sonoma County Dist. Av Jill Ravitch said in a statement.

Had the Kincade fire trial been successful, the expected result would have been a nearly $ 9.4 million fine, most of which would go to the state rather than Sonoma County, he said at a news conference. The maximum criminal fine in connection with the Dixie fire would be just $ 329,417, according to Northern State District Attorneys, a consortium of prosecutors representing Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta and Tehama counties.

“The criminal procedure provides limited remedies against corporate offenders,” said Ravitch, adding that corporate defendants cannot be jailed and may only be subject to fines or probation. Did you notice that after PG & E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter for the campfire of 2018, it Paid only $ 4 million.

“It’s perfect? Absolutely not. There will always be critics, whatever we do, “she said.” But I wasn’t going to end up like that [Dist. Atty.] Mike Ramsey in Butte County hears the CEO admit responsibility for 84 deaths and then simply pay a fine and walk away, ”he said.

But community attorney Will Abrams, who lost his Sonoma County home in the 2017 Tubbs fire and is still awaiting payment via PG&E bankruptcy procedure which is the result of a series of wildfires in Northern California, he said the deal “equates dollars with justice and security.”

Abrams, who evacuated his home during the Kincade fire, participated in Monday’s court case in which the deal was announced.

“While I was sitting in the courtroom, there was a line of criminals being prosecuted for single offenses handcuffed and waiting for time with the judge,” he said. “They have not had the opportunity to financially negotiate away their crime charges. PG&E is given this opportunity over and over again.

PG&E has also agreed to hire 160 to 200 employees in the six counties to strengthen safety work and initiate a five-year monitoring of its vegetation management and system inspection work in those counties.

This comes after the recent utility got out of a five-year probation in connection with the 2010 gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno. During that time, PG&E started at least 31 fires that burned nearly 1.5 million acres and killed 113 Californians, according to US District Judge William Alsup, who oversaw probation. He urged prosecutors to take on further oversight of the utility.

Monitoring will be overseen by a team of independent experts with Filsinger Energy Partners, who will ensure that the utility complies with the fire mitigation safety plan that you must submit to the California Public Utilities Commission. The company also acts as an independent safety monitor for the CPUC, whose oversight efforts were found lacking by a state auditor relationship released last month.

Some recommended consumers welcomed the development. “PG&E needs as many independent monitors as possible at this point,” said Mark Toney, executive director of Utility Reform Network.

PG&E had faced five misdemeanors and 28 misdemeanor counts in the Kincade fire, including recklessly causing a fire that seriously injured six firefighters. The proceedings in the case had begun and included two days of testimony.

The fire started on October 23, 2019, under a PG&E transmission tower near the Geyser geothermal field in North Sonoma County. It burned more than 77,000 acres, destroyed 374 buildings and seriously injured six firefighters over the course of 15 days, resulting in the largest evacuation in the county’s history.

An investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection identified the cause of the fire like a broken connecting cable that has failed after years of wind-driven wear and arched against a steel transmission tower, sending sparks into the dry vegetation below. The cable was connected to a transmission line that led nowhere – it had once been connected to a power plant that had been taken out of service in the early 2000s – but had not been de-energized, prosecutors said.

PG&E has separately agreed to pay $ 125 million in fines and penalties based on an agreement reached with CPUC in relation to the fire.

Regulators have not yet evaluated the penalties in connection with the Dixie fire, which opened a 1,500-square-mile route through five counties. The fire raged for more than three months last summer, burning about 40% of Plumas County, including the Gold Rush-era city of Greenville, which was destroyed. It was the second largest fire in California history and became the first to burn across the Sierra Nevada.

The fire began on July 13 in Feather River Canyon when a Douglas fir fell on an electrical distribution line, which Cal Fire investigators identified as the cause of the nearly 1 million acre fire. In federal court documents, PG&E described a number of accidents and delays this resulted in an employee not reaching the site until about 10 hours later, by which time a 600 to 800 square foot fire had started.

The utility said its equipment could also be the cause of the ignition of the Fly fire, which began nine days later and eventually merged with the Dixie fire.

District Attorneys in at least two counties – Butte and Plumas – at one point he had investigated PG&E for potential criminal liability in the fire.

Those prosecutors, along with other Northern State District Attorneys, instead decided to file a civil complaint accusing PG&E of illegal business practices. The case resolution ruling filed Monday allowed for greater flexibility in obtaining increased security measures and quick restitution for those who have lost property, according to a consortium press release.

The agreement also requires PG&E to take additional safety measures in those counties, including implementing automatic power outages when objects come into contact with high-risk distribution lines by the end of 2022 and the undergrounding of at least 400 miles of distribution lines by the end of 2024, the statement said.

“We are committed to doing our part and look forward to a long partnership with these communities to make it fair and safe,” PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said in a statement.