PG&E pleaded guilty as was expected Tuesday in Butte County Superior Court to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 84 people and was caused by PG&E electrical equipment.
The company also pleaded guilty to one count of illegally starting a fire. The pleas were expected because PG&E entered into a plea agreement in March with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.
Under the agreement, the utility will pay the maximum possible penalty of about $4 million.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said the penalty will include the maximum fine of $10,000 for each involuntary manslaughter count; $50,000 on the fire count; and court fees allowed by law, for a total amount calculated at $3,486,950. In addition, PG&E will pay Ramsey’s office $500,000 for the cost of the investigation.
Victim impact statements will begin in Superior Court on Wednesday and may last through the week, after which PG&E will be sentenced.
Tuesday in court, PG&E Corp. CEO and President Bill Johnson, read a statement about PG&E’s role in the fire.
“I am here today on behalf of the 23,000 men and women of PG&E, to accept responsibility for the fire here that took so many lives and changed these communities forever.
“I have heard the pain and the anguish of victims as they’ve described the loss they continue to endure, and the wounds that can’t be healed.
“No words from me could ever reduce the magnitude of such devastation or do anything to repair the damage.
“But I hope that the actions we are taking here today will help bring some measure of peace.”
In the statement, Johnson also said that PG&E equipment started the fire that burned the towns of Paradise and Concow to the ground and severely charred Magalia and other portions of Butte County.
The Camp Fire began on Nov. 8, 2018, when a suspension hook known as a C-hook on a nearly 100-year-old transmission tower in the Sierra foothills in eastern Butte County broke, causing a power line to fall against the metal tower and sending sparks to dry grass below.
The wildfire quickly swept southwest through Butte County in dry and windy conditions, killing the 84 people and burning 153,336 acres.
In May 2019, Cal Fire announced it had determined the fire was caused by PG&E electrical transmission lines in the area of Pulga in eastern Butte County. But the agency did not give details because it forwarded its investigative report to Ramsey for the criminal probe.
Previously, PG&E acknowledged that the broken C-hook caused the fire.
In a federal court filing in San Francisco last July, the utility’s lawyers wrote:
“PG&E acknowledges that the failure of a component on a nearly 100-year-old PG&E transmission tower caused the Camp Fire. The component that failed was a steel suspension hook known as a C-hook.”
The filing was submitted to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who oversees PG&E’s probation in a criminal pipeline safety case stemming from the 2010 fatal explosion of a PG&E natural gas pipeline in San Bruno.
Tuesday, Johnson added:
“I wish there were some way to take back what happened or take away the pain of those who’ve suffered. But I know there’s not.”
“Your Honor, we make this plea with sadness and regret-and with eyes open to what happened, and to what we must do to make things right.”
Separately, PG&E is awaiting a federal bankruptcy court ruling on whether its financial reorganization plan for exiting Chapter 11 bankruptcy will be confirmed.
The utility filed for the bankruptcy protection, allowing temporary freeze of its debts, in January 2019, citing billions of dollars in liability for the Camp Fire and 2017 wildfires in the North Bay.