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Hits just keep on coming for PG&E

It’s been a busy couple of months for Pacific Gas & Electric. Not only has the utility responsible for 111 deaths and the destruction of 20,000 structures in the past 10 years agreed to a bankruptcy plan that could lead to the state of California taking ownership of the company, it has now pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Yes, you read that right. A corporation has agreed to settle 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter filed against it by the Butte County district attorney’s office for causing the 2018 Camp fire, California’s deadliest wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise.

No one will serve jail time as a result of the settlement, but the company will pay a fine of $3.5 million, plus $500,000 to the Butte County District Attorney Environmental and Consumer Protection Fund to reimburse the office for the costs of investigating the fire, and up to $15 million to provide water to residents after the fire destroyed one of the company’s canals.

That may not seem like much, but PG&E is already on the hook for $25.5 billion in settlements stemming from wildfires in 2015, 2017 and 2018. Of that total, $13.5 billion went to victims and $12 billion to insurers, local governments and other public entities.

The utility filed for bankruptcy in 2019, citing massive liabilities for fires that were linked to its equipment. In the case of the Camp fire, the company acknowledged that it failed to properly maintain the equipment.

PG&E now faces a June 30 deadline to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy under a settlement reached with California Gov. Gavin Newsom. If it cannot do so, the utility has agreed to put itself up for sale.

The agreement with Newsom also requires the company to pay no shareholder dividends for three years. But company officials still had the gall to ask the bankruptcy court to allow it to pay $450 million in bonuses to executives and senior employees. A hearing on that request was scheduled for today in San Francisco.

PG&E is guilty of repeatedly failing to maintain its equipment, with catastrophic results. The New York Times reported a year ago that five of the 10 most destructive fires in California since 2015 have been linked the company’s equipment. The Camp fire is believed to have started with a spark from a power line that fell from a transmission tower that was more than 100 years old and 25 years past its useful life.

PG&E’s answer to all of this was to shut off power to customers last year across huge swaths of Northern California during extreme fire weather. The company vowed to fix its past mistakes and improve safety, but California officials were not persuaded.

The bankruptcy judge should reject out of hand the utility’s request to pay bonuses, and the state of California should continue its efforts to hold PG&E accountable for its unacceptable failings.

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