North Bay in­ferno vic­tims sue PG&E

Lodi News-Sentinel - - Local/State - By Ge­orge Ava­los

SAN FRAN­CISCO — Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co. was jolted Tues­day by a fresh round of law­suits from vic­tims of the lethal North Bay in­fer­nos, the lat­est chal­lenge to the util­ity as state agen­cies look into what caused the catas­tro­phe.

PG&E put prof­its be­fore pub­lic safety, the law­suits al­lege, and the util­ity also dis­re­garded manda­tory safety prac­tices and fore­see­able haz­ardous risks associated with the com­pany’s in­fra­struc­ture by fail­ing to iden­tify, in­spect, man­age and con­trol veg­e­ta­tion growth near its power lines and other elec­tri­cal equip­ment, ac­cord­ing to the lit­i­ga­tion.

“This calamity was pre­ventable,” Frank Pitre, an at­tor­ney for the plain­tiffs in the new lit­i­ga­tion, said Tues­day dur­ing an an­nounce­ment of the law­suits.

The Oc­to­ber wild­fires in the Wine Coun­try and nearby ar­eas killed 43 peo­ple and torched at least 245,000 acres in six counties.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors from CalFire and the state Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion have yet to de­ter­mine what un­leashed the in­fer­nos.

“We are aware that law­suits have been filed,” PG&E spokesman Don­ald Cut­ler said Tues­day. “There has been no de­ter­mi­na­tion on the causes of the fires.”

PG&E has $800 mil­lion in in­surance to cover any li­a­bil­i­ties for the Wine Coun­try fires.

The util­ity stated on a re­cent con­fer­ence call with an­a­lysts that it would ask the state PUC to au­tho­rize it to boost cus­tomers’ monthly elec­tric­ity bills if ac­tual North Bay fire ex­penses ex­ceed that cov­er­age.

San Fran­cisco-based PG&E has been in hot wa­ter in re­cent years in the wake of a Septem­ber 2010 ex­plo­sion of a gas pipe­line that killed eight peo­ple and de­stroyed a San Bruno neigh­bor­hood.

In April 2015, the state Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion im­posed a $1.6 bil­lion penalty on PG&E, the largest such fi­nan­cial pun­ish­ment ever levied on an Amer­i­can util­ity, for caus­ing the fa­tal blast. In Au­gust 2016, a fed­eral grand jury found PG&E guilty for crimes it com­mit­ted be­fore and af­ter the San Bruno ex­plo­sion, in­clud­ing an at­tempt by the util­ity to ob­struct a Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board probe into the blast.

Some of the claims in the lit­i­ga­tion evoked mem­o­ries of ac­cu­sa­tions that were at the heart of the suc­cess­ful crim­i­nal prose­cu­tion of the util­ity. PG&E’s flawed record-keep­ing and shoddy main­te­nance of its gas sys­tem caused the San Bruno ex­plo­sion, the NTSB de­ter­mined.

“This case is about PG&E’s pat­tern of crim­i­nal con­duct and mak­ing de­lib­er­ate choices,” Hal­lie Hoff­man, an as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­ney, told a fed­eral in June 2016 dur­ing open­ing ar­gu­ments. “This case is about de­lib­er­ate and il­le­gal choices, and about the cover-up of those choices.”

In Jan­uary, PG&E be­came a con­victed felon when a fed­eral judge sen­tenced the util­ity on six crim­i­nal con­vic­tions is­sued by the jury.

“No amount of ad­ver­tis­ing, no num­ber of crim­i­nal con­vic­tions, in­clud­ing mis­lead­ing the NTSB, seems to change a cul­ture at PG&E that puts prof­its ahead of safety,” Pitre said.

Dur­ing the 12 months that ended in Septem­ber, PG&E cap­tured $2.06 bil­lion in prof­its on rev­enue of $18.04 bil­lion.

Gre­gory Wil­son, a Santa Rosa res­i­dent, re­called how he and his wife plunged into their back­yard swim­ming pool to es­cape the heat, flames and drift­ing em­bers and re­mained in the wa­ter for hours while the flames con­sumed their home.

“We jumped in the pool to sur­vive,” Wil­son, a vic­tim of lengthy smoke in­hala­tion, whis­pered dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion. “For the next three hours, we watched ev­ery­thing burn around us. It’s a night­mare that you can’t even imag­ine.”

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