PG&E was charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with a wildfire that killed four people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.
(CBS SF/AP) REDDING — After its equipment caused the Zogg Fire last year, which killed four people and damaged hundreds of houses, a Northern California district attorney announced manslaughter and many other charges against Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) on Friday.
It’s the latest legal action against the nation’s biggest utility, which pleaded guilty last year to 84 charges of involuntary homicide in a 2018 fire that was virtually destroyed by its long-neglected electrical infrastructure and became the deadliest U.S. inferno in a century.
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Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett revealed the 31 accusations against the business, including 11 felonies, during a press conference. In July, she announced that her office had concluded that PG&E was “criminally liable” for the Zogg Fire, which occurred near Redding last year.
On Monday, Sep. 28, 2020, a California Highway Patrol trooper stands on Clear Creek Road in Igo, Calif., watching flames from the Zogg Fire. (Photo courtesy of Ethan Swope of the Associated Press)
The fire started on Sept. 27, 2020, and raced across the mountainous Sierra Nevada and towns, killing four people, destroying approximately 200 houses, and blackening roughly 87 square miles (225 square kilometers) of terrain. It was pushed by high winds.
According to state authorities, the fire was started by a gray pine tree that fell onto a PG&E transmission line in March. The counties of Shasta and Tehama have sued PG&E for negligence, claiming that the company neglected to remove the tree despite it being designated for removal two years before.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after its outdated equipment was blamed for a number of disasters, including the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, which killed 85 people and damaged 10,000 homes, and it faced hundreds of lawsuits.
Officials at PG&E have admitted that the company hasn’t always lived up to expectations, but that improvements in leadership and other areas have put the company on the right road and that it will improve. They have outlined a number of changes, including the use of more sophisticated technologies to prevent starting wildfires and to aid in their detection.
Patti Poppe, the CEO of PG&E, said in a statement published after the indictments were announced on Friday that her business had committed no crimes.
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“We accepted CAL FIRE’s earlier this year conclusion that the Zogg Fire was caused by a tree contacting our power line. That conclusion is acceptable to us. But we didn’t do anything wrong,” Poppe wrote. ”
We’re putting all we have towards avoiding and minimizing wildfires. Though it may seem good for PG&E to be charged with a felony, what I know is that the business is made up of people, 40,000 people who wake up every day to make the world a safer place and to put a stop to catastrophic wildfires and tragedies like this,” Poppe said. “Let me be clear: none of my colleagues are criminals. We are looking forward to our day in court so that others may learn exactly that.”
PG&E is also on probation for an eight-person pipeline explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area city of San Bruno in 2010, which resulted in a federal court overseeing the business. PG&E has been chastised by a court and California power regulators for failing to keep commitments to minimize the risks presented by trees near its power lines.
Last summer, PG&E emerged from bankruptcy and reached a $13.5 billion settlement with wildfire victims. However, it is still facing civil and criminal charges.
In April, the district attorney’s office in Sonoma County filed charges in connection with a 2019 fire that caused over 200,000 people to flee their homes.
Meanwhile, the majority of the approximately 70,000 victims who have filed claims for damages caused by PG&E’s previous wrongdoings are still waiting for reimbursement from a trust established after the bankruptcy. Because half of the trust’s financing came in the form of PG&E shares, the trust is facing a roughly $2 billion deficit.
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