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PG&E, a California utility, charged with manslaughter in deadly wildfire

Pacific Gas & Electric was charged on Friday with manslaughter and other crimes after its equipment triggered a Forest fire in northern California which killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes last year, prosecutors said. This is the latest legal action against the country’s largest utility, which pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of manslaughter in a 2018 fire sparked by its long-neglected power grid that devastated the town of Paradise and became the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century.

Shasta County Prosecutor Stephanie Bridgett announced all 31 counts, including 11 felonies, against PG&E, saying she failed to fulfill her legal obligations and that her “breach was reckless and criminal negligently, and that it resulted in the death of four people “.

If the utility is found guilty of manslaughter, the penalty would be a fine for every person killed in the Zogg fire last year near the town of Redding. A business “can’t go to jail, so we’re talking about fines, costs, the ability of the court to order corrective and corrective action,” Bridgett said.

“One of our main functions here is to hold them accountable and let surviving families know that their loved one did not die in vain,” she added.

PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said failing to prevent the blaze was not a crime.

“It was a tragedy, four people died. And my colleagues work so hard to prevent the fires and the catastrophic losses that accompany them. They have dedicated their careers to it, criminalizing their judgment is not fair,” Poppe said in a statement. .

The wind-whipped Zogg fire began on September 27, 2020 and raged through rugged terrain and small communities west of Redding, killing four people, burning about 200 homes and blackening about 87 square miles of land. land. Three of the victims died trying to outrun the blaze and were found in or near their vehicles. A fourth victim died in a hospital.

In March, state fire investigators concluded the blaze was started by a jack pine that fell on a PG&E transmission line. Shasta and Tehama counties sued the utility for negligence, claiming PG&E had failed to remove the tree even though it had been marked for removal two years earlier. The utility said the tree was then cleared to stay.

The district attorney determined that the company was criminally responsible for the fire. Charges on Friday included improvements for a 29-year-old firefighter who was hit by a fall from a tree that fractured his spine, crippling him from the chest down. They also included arson charges related to several fires started by utility equipment in Shasta County over the past year, Bridgett said.

PG&E, which has approximately 16 million customers in central and northern California, filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after its aging equipment was blamed for a series of fires, including the Campfire 2018 which killed 85 people and destroyed 10,000 homes in Paradise and neighboring communities.

Company officials have acknowledged that PG&E has fallen short of expectations in the past, but said changes in management and elsewhere ensure it is on the right track and will do better. They have listed a wide range of improvements that include the use of more advanced technology to avoid starting wildfires and help detect them faster.

PG&E also remains on criminal probation for a 2010 pipeline explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area of ​​San Bruno that killed eight people, giving a federal judge oversight of the company. The California judge and regulators berated PG&E for breaking promises to reduce the dangers posed by trees near its power lines.

The company acknowledged that its equipment may have played a role in igniting the Dixie Fire this summer, which burned nearly a million acres and is now the second largest wildfire in the state history.

PG&E emerged from bankruptcy last summer and negotiated a $ 13.5 billion settlement with some victims of forest fires. But he still faces civil and criminal actions, including charges from the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office in 2019. Kincade fire which forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate.

In the meantime, most of the roughly 70,000 victims who have filed claims for the devastation caused by PG&E’s past wrongdoing are still awaiting payment from a trust created in bankruptcy. The trust, which is managed independently from PG&E, faces a shortfall of nearly $ 2 billion as half of its funding came from shares in the company.