The CEO of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in court on behalf of the utility and apologized for its negligence in causing the deadly Camp Fire that destroyed two Butte County, California, towns.
PG&E chief executive Bill Johnson replied guilty to each count Tuesday, June 16, as the Butte County judge read the names of the 84 Camp Fire victims aloud. Photographs of each victim were shown to the courtroom as the judge read their names.
“On behalf of PG&E, I apologize, and I apologize personally, for the pain that was caused here,” Mr. Johnson told the court, according to Law 360. “Our equipment started that fire, destroyed the towns of Paradise, Concow, severely burned Magalia and other parts of Butte County, took the lives of 85 people, thousands of people lost their homes and businesses, were forced to evacuate under horrific circumstances.”
PG&E also pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully and recklessly causing the November 2018 Camp Fire. Investigators determined that the massive fire was sparked by PG&E’s negligently maintained power lines.
“We can’t replace all that the fire destroyed, but we do hope by pleading guilty, by accepting accountability, by compensating victims, supporting rebuilding and making significant lasting changes to the way we operate, we can honor those who were lost and help this community move forward,” Mr. Johnson said after entering all of the guilty pleas.
The fire killed 85 people and injured at least 12 others, and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes. It was the deadliest wildfire in California’s history.
An investigation led by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that faulty equipment owned and operated by PG&E sparked the fire. Drought and strong, hot katabatic winds from the mountains fed the flames, which raged out of control for nearly a month.
According to Law 360, PG&E is expected to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy on June 30, the same day that Mr. Johnson will retire from California’s largest utility company. PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019 under the strain of an estimated $30 billion in liabilities for its part in causing wildfires that swept through California in 2015, 2017 and 2018, killing 130 people.
A bankruptcy judge is expected to confirm the utility’s reorganization plan, estimated at $59 billion, in the coming days. Mr. Johnson said that after the plan is approved, it will start paying $25.5 billion in settlements to Butte County, fire victims, and others.
PG&E will also pay about $4 million in fines and costs related to Butte County’s investigation of the Camp Fire on top of $500 million it agreed to pay the county under its restructuring plan. It established a $13.5 billion trust for fire victims during the bankruptcy proceedings.
Although Mr. Johnson, who became CEO in April 2019, said that “PG&E will never forget the Camp Fire” and it’s working to ensure the “tragedy that occurred here never occurs again,” many critics say that sloppy corporate practices will never change until the executives are held personally accountable for their actions.