State AG says PG&E could face mur­der charges in Camp Fire

The Modesto Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY DALE KASLER [email protected]

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 nat- ural-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.

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 in­spec­tors, 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 high­volt­age 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.

HEC­TOR AMEZCUA [email protected]

Lou Don­nelly gets help from his son Matthew to move a safe from his burned down house in Par­adise.

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