Jan. 1, 2019– Mary Greeley News – A major utility company in California could face murder charges should it be found criminally liable for any of the recent deadly wildfires, according to the state’s attorney general.
The company, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), could be charged with those serious crimes if it is determined that it acted with malice in the way that it operated and maintained equipment, court papers filed by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said.
The filing came on Friday in Northern California’s federal district court and follows a US district judge ordered PG&E to determine if it had played any role in starting the Camp Fire, which killed at least 88 people and 196 still missing
That judge, William Alsup, is overseeing a different case against PG&E in the wake of a 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and injured dozens more. That explosion occurred just south of San Francisco.
Experts say civil penalties can, in some cases, deliver a more punishing message than a criminal prosecution. In the San Bruno pipeline explosion, PG&E was fined $1.6 billion by state regulators. After being convicted of six felony counts of violating federal pipeline safety laws, the company was fined a mere $3 million, the maximum allowed by law. The judge in the criminal case also ordered PG&E to spend up to $3 million publicizing the convictions in the media and to have its employees perform a total of 10,000 hours of community service.
Still, the San Bruno conviction has had lasting impacts. The company has been on probation since 2017 and has had to submit to outside monitoring of a court-ordered “compliance and ethics program.”
Many of the Dead in Camp Fire Were Disabled.
Over and over again, it is mostly people with disabilities and aged, they are the ones being left behind,’ said Christina Mills, executive director with the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers.
Some 9,500 residents in the Paradise-area had a disability, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2012 to 2016. That’s about 25 percent of the population, more than double the statewide rate.
The fire’s speed caught emergency officials and residents by surprise.
Butte County’s social services director Shelby Boston said her staff that morning quickly began dialing names on a list of about 1,500 people on the hill who were enrolled in the county’s In-Home Supportive Services program, which helps elderly and infirm people remain in their homes despite disabilities.
But the effort was hopelessly over-matched before it even started.
The fire ignited about 6:30 a.m., sweeping quickly into the hamlet of Concow and throwing embers into Paradise, igniting homes and causing propane tanks to explode.
“By the time my staff could make those calls, the fire had already run through the areas we were most concerned about,” Boston said. “You cannot plan for this sort of large-scale disaster. This is beyond what anyone could have imagined could have happened.”
Carolyn Nava, who lived for years in Paradise and works in Chico at the Disability Action Center, pointed out that some elderly and infirm don’t have smart phones and that cell service around Paradise is notoriously spotty. “If you weren’t standing in a certain spot, facing the east with your foot pointing to the north, you wouldn’t even have gotten wireless anyway.”
Butte County has two detailed documents on its website offering advice to disabled people in advance of a disaster. The documents were not locally produced, and are not locally specific. One was published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the other by the county of San Diego.
The judge overseeing the San Bruno case ordered PG&E in November to explain whether any of the wildfires for the past two years constitutes a violation of probation. The company has until Monday to respond. The judge also asked Becerra’s office to weigh in with its legal opinion; the brief filed late Friday came in response to that request.
If the judge determines that PG&E has violated probation, experts say he could strengthen the terms of the compliance and ethics program.
If any of the wildfires broke out as a result of the utility failing to properly operate and maintain power lines, per an amicus brief filed in US District Court Friday by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
Gov. Jerry Brown in September signed SB 901, which provides partial protection for PG&E and other utilities from financial liabilities stemming from wildfires. Nevertheless, the company’s stock price has fallen in half since the Camp Fire ignited.
Other legal troubles loom. The Public Utilities Commission has said it’s considering a variety of measures to deal with PG&E’s safety record, including a possible breakup of the utility.
The utility company — the largest in the state — has acknowledged that its equipment could have potentially played a part in sparking the Camp Fire, according to a document obtained by CNBC last month.
The Camp Fire was the deadliest fire in the state’s history, beginning on 8 November. All told, the fire destroyed 240 square miles in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and destroyed almost the entire town of Paradise, and claimed 85 lives.
It is not certain that the company will face serious charges like murder, however, and prosecutors have indicated that they would need to probe the utility’s operations, maintenance, and safety practices.
During that time, prosecutors would need to determine that the company had committed a crime “with the requisite mental intent” before a charge like murder could arise.
Lesser charges could be filed if the company did not properly clear areas near power lines and poles, according to the court filing.
In the blaze’s aftermath, PG&E reported “an outage” on a transmission line in the area where the blaze began, about 15 minutes before it started. The company also reported finding power equipment and a downed power pole riddled with bullet holes and a downed line with tree branches on it.
In recent years PG&E has suffered repeated blows to its reputation for its connection to other disasters and failing to meet regulatory standards.
It’s currently on probation after being found guilty on several charges for a 2010 PG&E pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed 8 people and injured more than 50 others. PG&E was placed on probation and fined $1.6 billion by the commission for unsafe operation of its gas transmission system.
Last year, the company was sentenced to another five years of probation and fined $3 million after being found guilty of multiple violations of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act.
PG&E equipment was also found to have caused 17 fires last year , often after branches or trees came in contact with power lines, per California fire officials.
Investigators determined that in 11 cases the company violated codes regarding brush clearance or related violations and referred the matters to prosecutors. No charges have been filed against PG&E in relation to the violations.
Earlier this month, the California Public Utilities Commission claimed PG&E failed to locate and mark natural gas pipelines in a timely manner and pressured workers to falsify data so the locating and marking work would not appear as late.
The judge could impose new requirements on the utility if it’s found to have violated its probation in the pipeline case. The company already has been ordered to pay a $3 million fine, run television commercials publicizing its convictions and have an independent monitor oversee the safety of its gas pipeline system.