Involuntary Manslaughter Plea in Fatal Wildfire Case Costs Calif. Utility $4M
Pacific Gas and Electric agreed to plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully causing a fire in a settlement reached with the Butte County, Calif., district attorney, resolving all state charges related to the 2018 Camp Fire that killed more than 80 and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes.
The San Francisco utility filed the settlement in U.S. bankruptcy court in that city on March 23. The court and the the Butte County Municipal Court must approve the deal.
“Our equipment started the fire. Those are the facts, and with this plea agreement we accept responsibility for our role in the fire,” PG&E Corp. CEO Bill Johnson said in a statement.
The utility agreed to pay a fine of $3.5 million and $500,000 in expenses. No additional sentence will be imposed on the utility, according to the court filing.
PG&E had previously reached settlements totaling about $2.5 billion with groups of victims from wildfires in 2015, 2017 and 2018, which include claims by victims of the Camp Fire.
The utility on March 20 filed its latest plan to emerge from bankruptcy, which includes provisions that would allow it to participate in the statewide wildfire fund to pay for liability in connection with wildfires occurring after July 19, 2019.
Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) supports the plan, saying it shows that PG&E is committed to financing the improvements necessary to transform it to a safe and reliability utility.
The Camp Fire, which started on Nov. 8, 2018, destroyed the towns of Paradise and Concow, as well as other parts of Butte County. The reconstruction of Paradise will be the largest rebuilding effort in the company’s service territory since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the company said.
PG&E says it has implemented a safety-based approach to reducing wildfires since the Camp Fire, which includes placing distribution lines underground in Paradise and in other areas affected by the 2018 fire. The company has spent $100 million rebuilding the electric and gas infrastructure in Paradise and the area surrounding it.
The utility is reducing the need for public safety power shutoffs during wildfires by encouraging customers to add solar panels and planning microgrids and distributed generation for those areas most affected.
Utility spokesman Paul Doherty says PG&E is reducing the need for public safety power shutoffs during wildfires by encouraging customers to add solar panels and it was planning to add permanent distributed generation and microgrids by the fall for those areas most affected.
But it recently pivoted toward supplying temporary generation for the 2020 wildfire season, he says, adding that customers in the region were opposed to permanent distributed generation using diesel fuel and land needed was not available.
PG&E also anticipated putting permanent distributed generation at just four substations by September, but using 300 MW of temporary generation would allow it to expand service to about 40 substations before this year’s wildfire season, which would avoid cutoffs to many more customers., according to Doherty.
He says the company continues to evaluate its permanent solution and issued a request for information for new approaches, including community microgrids, and will file its plan with California regulators in coming weeks.