Pacific Gas & Electric on Thursday was fined $4 million for the deaths of 84 people killed in a nightmarish Northern California wildfire ignited by the its long-neglected electrical grid. The sentencing comes as the nation’s largest utility prepares to end a 17-month bankruptcy proceeding triggered by the catastrophe.
The maximum penalty assessed by Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems was a mere formality, given that PG&E reached a plea agreement three months ago to resolve manslaughter and other charges. They stemmed from a November 2018 inferno that wiped out Paradise, California, a town located 170 miles (275 kilometres) northeast of San Francisco.
Deems rebuked PG&E for its “callous disregard” for human life and pointed out that if an individual had confessed to the same crimes as the company did, he would have been able to order a sentence of 90 years in state prison.
But as a corporation, PG&E cannot be imprisoned, forcing the judge to issue the maximum fine allowed under California law. Although PG&E has been in bankruptcy since early last year, the penalty won’t leave a big financial dent, given that it brought in $17 billion in revenue last year.
PG&E’s harshest punishment came in the form of a public shaming that laid bare the horrific toll of its reckless behaviour. The company’s dereliction also was detailed in a summary of a scathing grand jury report.
The sentencing came after two days of courtroom drama that included PG&E’s outgoing CEO, Bill Johnson, solemnly pleading guilty on behalf of the San Francisco company for 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter while starting at pictures of each victim. The families of the dead then spent an emotionally draining day in court telling the heartbreaking stories of their anguish and venting their anger.
PG&E used the proceedings to express its regret for the lethal decisions that caused the fire and has promised to overhaul a corporate culture that long emphasized boosting profits for investors over protecting the safety of the 16 million people who rely on the utility for power.
“On behalf of everyone at PG&E, I am truly sorry for the terrible loss of life and the physical and emotional damage resulting from the fire,” said a PG&E board member, Bill Smith, who will replace Johnson as the company’s interim CEO June 30.
“Ï recognize no apology, no plea, no sentencing can undo that damage,” Smith continued in his statement of contrition to Deems. “And no passage of time can lessen the anguish that we heard expressed in this courtroom.
“All of us know actions speak louder than words. We have taken action and we will continue to take action to combat the growing threat of wildfires. and to keep our customers and our communities safe.”
PG&E is about to be given a new financial life with the imminent approval of its $58 billion plan for getting out of bankruptcy. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali said late Wednesday that he intends to approve PG&E’s plan Friday after some minor details are worked out.
The complex plan includes $13.5 billion earmarked for the survivors of the fire, as well as tens of thousands of other people who lost family, homes and businesses in other catastrophic wildfires caused by PG&E’s crumbling equipment during 2017 and 2018.
Before that happens, PG&E had to endure one more day of castigation in a bucolic community that is still struggling to recover from the devastation left behind by the 2018 fire, which burned through 153,000 acres. Nearly 19,000 buildings were destroyed, including about 14,000 homes. Prosecutors said 85 people died in the blaze, but could not find the company culpable for one of the deaths.
Before Deems sentenced PG&E, District Attorney Mike Ramsey delivered one last impassioned statement calling out the company for “criminally reckless and grossly negligent behaviour” that turned the date of the fire — Nov. 8, 2018 — into a “day of infamy.” He compared how the survivors now remember that nightmarish day to the way many other people recall the dates of Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2011.
“They evoke immediate and unspeakable, unshakable and unforgettable memories,” Ramsey said.