Pacific Gas & Electric Co. could be prosecuted for murder, manslaughter or lesser criminal charges if investigators determine that “reckless operation” of its power equipment caused any of Northern California’s deadly wildfires in the past two years, California’s attorney general says.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra, in an opinion submitted to a federal judge overseeing the criminal case following PG&E’s fatal 2010 natural-gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, outlined a variety of scenarios under which the embattled utility could face criminal charges in the Camp Fire or other deadly blazes since 2017.
The legal brief submitted by Becerra’s office said prosecutors would have to gauge PG&E’s “mental state” before determining which charges, if any, to bring. The charges would range from murder to a misdemeanor negligence charge, according to the brief.
Becerra’s opinion underscores the mounting problems facing PG&E, which could be liable for billions of dollars in civil damages in connection with the Camp Fire and the flurry of deadly fires in the wine country and elsewhere in Northern California in late 2017.
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Cal Fire has determined that PG&E likely broke state law in connection with 12 of the 2017 fires, and is investigating the utility’s possible role in the Camp Fire. The Nov. 8 wildfire killed 86 people in the Paradise area, more than any other fire in California history. In disclosures to the state Public Utilities Commission, PG&E has acknowledged significant problems occurred on a transmission tower near the site where the Camp Fire is believed to have started.
Becerra’s brief is purely advisory; if any criminal charges are filed, they would likely be lodged by county district attorneys, not the state.
So far, though, district attorneys have shown little appetite for prosecuting PG&E, according to Sacramento Bee reporting.
No charges have been filed yet in the wine country fires. And at least one DA has opted for a financial settlement in lieu of criminal prosecution.
Shortly before the Camp Fire ignited, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey agreed not to file criminal charges for a small wildfire that struck the Paradise area in 2017. In return, the utility pledged $1.5 million to pay for four new fire safety inspector, and to allow those inspectors to examine PG&E power lines.
Ramsey recently told The Bee that he hasn’t decided yet whether to bring criminal charges against PG&E over the Camp Fire, even if Cal Fire concludes the utility is at fault. “It’s a little premature,” he said.
In Yuba County, meanwhile, DA Pat McGrath declined to file charges over last year’s Cascade Fire, which killed four people, despite a finding by Cal Fire that “sagging power lines” owned by PG&E were to blame. McGrath said it would have been too difficult to obtain a criminal conviction.
Asked to respond to Becerra’s brief, the utility said: “PG&E’s most important responsibility is public and workforce safety. Our focus continues to be on assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety and helping our customers continue to recover and rebuild. Throughout our service area, we are committed to doing everything we can to help further reduce the risk of wildfire.”
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.”
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.
The Camp Fire began near the remote community of Pulga, northeast of Paradise. In a recent disclosure to the state, PG&E said its inspectors found a broken hook on a high-voltage transmission tower near Pulga. Lawyers suing PG&E on behalf of Camp Fire survivors said the broken hook might have allowed a live wire to make contact with the tower itself, raining sparks onto the dry ground below.
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.