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 in Butte County and 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.
Butte County officials have said 85 people died in the Camp Fire. It wasn’t immediately clear why PG&E agreed to plead guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter instead of 85. Besides the litany of involuntary manslaughter, PG&E also will plead guilty to a single count of unlawfully starting a fire.
The Nov. 8, 2018, fire was fanned quickly by strong winds, forcing thousands of people to quickly flee as they tried to escape in their cars as flames from the narrow canyon communities. Survivors described caravans of vehicles engulfed by flames.
The dead were found in burned-out cars, in the smoldering ruins of their homes and next to their vehicles, apparently overcome by smoke and flames before they could get inside them.
In some cases, all that remained of the dead were charred fragments of bone so small that investigators used a wire basket to sift and sort them.
The grisly scene unfolded slightly more than a year after a series of 2017 blazes tore through Northern California and killed 2017 wildfires. 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 both the 2017 and 2018 fires.
Less than three months after the Butte County fires, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in early 2019 to help shield the utility from more than $50 billion in claimed losses stemming a badly outdated electrical grid. PG&E has settled those claims for $25.5 billion, including the fund set up for the wildfire victims.
Since the bankruptcy filing, PG&E hired Johnson as its new leader to shape up its culture as the company steps up its efforts to improve the safety and reliability of its power lines.
Johnson hailed Monday’s plea agreement as a sign that PG&E is “working to create a better future for all concerned. We want wildfire victims, our customers, our regulators and leaders to know that the lessons we learned from the Camp Fire remain a driving force for us to transform this company.”
But Johnson has previously acknowledged that will take many years to pull off while PG&E pours an estimated $40 billion into badly needed upgrades.
In the meantime, PG&E plans to periodically turn off the power during extremely windy and dry conditions to minimize fire risks in parts of a sprawling service territory that provides electricity to 16 million people. By its own admission, PG&E bungled the deliberate blackouts it imposed last autumn to the exasperation of customers and community leaders who complained about not being told the company’s lack of communication about the outages.
Both California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the head of PG&E’s chief regulator in the state, the Public Utilities Commission, have expressed doubts about whether the company has made enough changes to be trusted to change its ways. Newsom has been threatening to try to block PG&E’s plan to get out of bankruptcy this summer, although he recently dropped its previous objections to the heavy debt load that the company will take on to help pay the money it owes for the past wildfires.
The Democratic governor still hasn’t back off his demand that PG&E replace its entire 14-,member board of directors, including Johnson, to help prevent repeats of the company’s past misconduct. PG&E so far has only said it plans to replace some of the directors while resisting sweeping everyone else out.
Newsom holds unusual leverage over PG&E’s fate in bankruptcy because the company needs California’s approval of its plan to qualify for coverage from a wildfire insurance fund that the state created last summer. PG&E recently won a judge’s approval to prepare to send out a statement that will set the stage for a vote on its reorganization plan. The balloting is scheduled to be completed in mid-May, putting PG&E on track to meet a June 30 deadline to wrap up one of the most complex bankruptcy cases in U.S. history.