Environmental activist Erin Brockovich and Camp Fire survivors rallied at the Capitol on Tuesday to protest PG&E’s recent announcement that it plans to file for bankruptcy at the end of January.
Standing under a banner reading “Justice for ALL Fire Victims” and flanked by wildfire victims and lawyers, Brockovich criticized the planned bankruptcy filing as PG&E’s “go-to move” and called for greater state involvement in PG&E.
“They must be present and not just be a person sitting at the table,” Brockovich said of the Legislature and governor’s office. “Be (at) the head of the table, and take control of this runaway monopoly.”
Brockovich called PG&E’s infrastructure “antiquated,” mentioning the possibility that the company may need to bury its power lines underground, and said the state Public Utilities Commission must “stop giving them a pass” and demand greater transparency.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said earlier this month it will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on or about Jan. 29, citing roughly $30 billion in liabilities stemming from the 2017 wine country fires and the November 2018 Camp Fire. A U.S. District judge last week blamed uninsulated PG&E power conductors for most of Northern California’s deadly wildfires over the past two years.
With the utility company’s reserves evaporating, bankruptcy could reduce money available for wildfire victims, speakers said at the Capitol rally.
“They would be treated in the bankruptcy court as unsecured creditors,” lawyer and former California state Sen. Noreen Evans said. “They would be behind a lot of other folks who have their hands out wanting to be paid by PG&E.”
The legal costs of bankruptcy could also lead PG&E to charge higher rates.
The Legislature last year approved what some have called a bailout or partial bailout plan, SB 901, that could force PG&E customers to pay for some of the cost of the wine country fires in 2017.
Evans, who works with Brockovich, said SB 901 is not exactly a bailout.
“It is access to a fund of money that PG&E can use to pay its victims,” Evans said.
But SB 901 does not say anything about 2018 wildfires, and Brockovich said Camp Fire victims should get the same access to the funds allowed by SB 901 and be made whole.
“This must be fixed,” she said. “Are we really going to hedge a bet that PG&E is going to stop this long-proven pattern of behavior? Or does the time happen when the state of California steps up and takes control of the runaway train?”
About two dozen wildfire survivors stood on the Capitol steps with Brockovich and her partners, including Evans and Joseph Earley, a Paradise attorney who lost his home and his law practice in the Camp Fire.
“They don’t have a cushion,” Earley said of Camp Fire victims. “If PG&E is to go bankrupt and in any way minimize the full recovery that these people deserve, they have nowhere to go. There’s no options for them.”
Evans added that reining in PG&E could be accomplished by forcing a corporate restructuring that strongly refocuses the company’s attention to public safety, or, if necessary, breaking up PG&E’s gas and electric services.
Evans and Brockovich said some major shareholders, including BlueMountain Capital Management, believe PG&E is still solvent and shouldn’t be allowed to declare bankruptcy.
In a pair of open letters to PG&E, BlueMountain has called for PG&E to delay its bankruptcy decision.
“There is overwhelming evidence that PG&E is solvent,” the first letter reads in part. “We simply cannot recall a situation where such a valuable company filed for bankruptcy with such blatant questions about the necessity of doing so.”
With tens of billions of dollars on the line, many news outlets have pointed out how lucrative a successful lawsuit against PG&E would be.
In late December, Bloomberg reported Brockovich had been hired by Washington, D.C.-based Mauro Archer & Associates to work as a “victim liaison” in future lawsuits against PG&E.
The Bloomberg story described a “blitz” of out-of-state law firms competing for the opportunity to sue PG&E, noting that lawyers typically take high cuts of uninsured recovery.
Prior to the Camp Fire, a union of PG&E workers last May filed a complaint alleging trial lawyers had created a “shadow lobbying” group, misrepresenting itself as a coalition made up of 2017 wildfire victims.
The California State Bar in mid-November issued a warning to Camp Fire victims about lawyers soliciting them dishonestly.
Brockovich’s fight against PG&E in the 1990s was the subject of the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich.” A legal clerk without formal law education, Brockovich helped force PG&E to pay out a $333 million settlement for its role in groundwater contamination in the San Bernardino County town of Hinkley.