California electricity provider Pacific Gas & Electric Co. agreed to a plea deal that will see it plead guilty to felony involuntary manslaughter charges for its role in starting the deadliest wildfire in state history.
The company, which disclosed the charges Monday in a regulatory finding, filed for Chapter 11 protection last year, after its aging and faulty equipment was blamed for five of the ten most destructive fires in California since 2015.
The state’s resistance to safety precautions due to environmental regulations has also been well documented. In 2016, then-governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill to promote the clearing of trees dangerously close to power lines, despite its unanimous passage through the state legislature and watchdogs saying it would have an impact.
Butte County, the home of the Camp Fire of November 2018, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people — the deadliest wildfire in California history — charged the company with 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of unlawfully causing a fire. The indictment caps a yearlong investigation led by Butte County district attorney Mike Ramsey to examine how PG&E’s power lines caused the fire.
“PG&E acted with criminal negligence, which is a much higher standard than ordinary negligence,” Ramsey told the Wall Street Journal. “They acted in a way that created a high risk of death.” It is rare for corporations to face homicide charges.
The company was already convicted in 2016 related to the neglecting of maintenance for a natural gas pipeline that exploded in 2010 in San Bruno, killing eight people. The sentencing included a five-year probation term, which would likely be violated by the new conviction and complicate the company’s attempt to emerge from chapter 11 protection.
Last week, the company reached a deal with Governor Gavin Newsom to not pay dividends to shareholders for three years, which would allow PG&E to exit bankruptcy by the state-ordered deadline of June 30, to allow it to enter a fund which will help utilities pay claims from future wildfires.
“This is the end of business as usual for PG&E,” Newsom said in a statement. “Through California’s unprecedented intervention in the bankruptcy, we secured a totally transformed board and leadership structure for the company, real accountability tools to ensure safety and reliability and billions more in contributions from shareholders to ensure safety upgrades are achieved.”
Despite his recent strong stance against the company, Newsom accepted large donations from the company during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, according to reports in October.