The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, March 24, 2020 1:00 am

PG&E to plead guilty in fire

$4 million fine for 84 manslaughter charges


SAN FRANCISCO – Pacific Gas & Electric will plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for a swath of death and destruction left behind after its fraying electrical grid ignited a 2018 wildfire that decimated three Northern California towns and drove the nation's largest utility into bankruptcy.

The plea agreement announced Monday resolves the charges facing PG&E as part of a previously sealed indictment in Butte County. It marks the second time this decade that the company's neglect has culminated in it being deemed a criminal. PG&E already is serving a five-year criminal probation imposed after it was convicted of six felony counts for falsifying records and other safety violations underlying a natural gas explosion that blew up a neighborhood and killed eight people in San Bruno, California.

As with its prior criminal conviction, no one from PG&E will go to prison for the company's felony crimes. Instead, its plea agreement with the Butte County District Attorney's office calls for PG&E to pay a $4 million fine, the maximum allowed. It will also help pay for efforts to restore access to water for residents affected by the loss of a canal destroyed by what became known as the Camp Fire.

“We cannot replace all that the fire destroyed, but our hope is that this plea agreement, along with our rebuilding efforts, will help the community move forward from this tragic incident,” PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said.

In a statement, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said he hopes the plea agreement will bring “a bit of a sense of justice done” for the fire.

Camp Fire survivor Lisa Williams was outraged with the outcome. “It's a crime against society,” she said. “A fine doesn't change their behavior. They pay it and repeat bad behavior.”

Butte County officials have pegged the 2018 wildfire's death toll at 85, but Ramsey disclosed Monday that further evidence cast doubt about whether one of the deaths was directly caused by the blaze.

One of those who died was Jay Downer's wheelchair-using brother, with his dog by his side. Jay Downer also said he was dismayed by the price PG&E will pay for its lethal negligence. “If I fell asleep at the wheel of a car and killed one person, I would be charged with manslaughter and I would be spending time in jail,” Downer said.

PG&E is scheduled to enter its plea and face sentencing at a court hearing scheduled for April 24.

The Nov. 8, 2018, fire was fanned by strong winds, forcing thousands of people to quickly flee in their cars as flames ripped through the narrow canyon communities. Survivors described caravans of vehicles engulfed by the fire.

A series of 2017 blazes tore through Northern California and killed 44 people. Although state investigators didn't find PG&E culpable for those fires, the company is accepting responsibility for them in its bankruptcy case as part of a $13.5 billion settlement that will pay the victims of the 2017 and 2018 fires. 

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