Rescue crews search through rubble in an effort to locate remains of victims of the Camp Fire on Nov. 13, 2018. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)
Pacific Gas & Electric confessed Tuesday to killing 84 people by causing the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern California history during a dramatic court hearing Tuesday, punctuated by a promise from the company's outgoing CEO that the utility will never again put profits ahead of safety.
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson appeared in a Butte County courthouse to plead guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the November 2018 Camp Fire, which was ignited by the utility's crumbling electrical grid. The blaze nearly wiped out the entire town of Paradise and drove PG&E into bankruptcy early last year.
Besides the mass deaths it caused, PG&E also pleaded guilty to one felony count of unlawfully starting a fire as part of an agreement with District Attorney Mike Ramsey.
As Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems read the names of each victim, Johnson acknowledged the horrific toll of PG&E's history of neglect while solemnly staring at photos of each dead person shown on a screen set up in the courtroom.
“No words from me could ever reduce the magnitude of that devastation or do anything to repair the damage," Johnson said in a statement afterward. “I hope the actions taken today bring some measure of peace."
He also assured the judge that PG&E took responsibility for all the unnecessary devastation that it caused “with eyes wide open to what happened and to what must never happen again."
Johnson was hired about six months after the Camp Fire and plans to step down as CEO on June 30, when PG&E hopes to have won court approval for its plan to get out of its second bankruptcy case in 16 years. A mostly new board of directors recently announced by PG&E as part of a deal with California will hire his replacement.
Tuesday's extraordinary court hearing was set up to publicly shame PG&E for past practices that emphasized boosting profits to keep investors happy instead upgrading and maintaining its crumbling equipment to protect the 16 million people who rely on the utility for power.
Many of the fire's victims were elderly or disabled. They took desperate measures to save themselves.
Dennis Clark, Jr., 49, was found in the passenger seat of a car his 72-year-old mother was driving. Their car was in a line of three other vehicles with bodies of victims in each one.
Sara Magnuson, 75, was found inside her home, wrapped in a wet carpet in the bathtub in a futile attempt to save herself.
More than 20 family members of the people killed are expected to make statements in court Wednesday. Deems is expected to formally sentence PG&E either Thursday or Friday.
Prosecutors said they discussed charging utility individuals but decided they lacked the evidence to do so, which means no one will go to prison for the crimes.
PG&E has agreed to pay a maximum fine of $3.5 million in addition to $500,000 for the cost of the investigation.
The proceeding unfolded as PG&E approaches the end of a complicated bankruptcy case that it used to work out $25.5 billion in settlements to pay for the damages from the fire and others that torched wide swaths of Northern California and killed dozens of others in 2017. The bankruptcy deals include $13.5 billion earmarked for wildfire victims. A federal judge is expected to issue a final decision on PG&E’s plan by June 30.
PG&E Put Profits Over Safety, Grand Jury Report Says
Butte County's district attorney also released a summary of a scathing grand jury report Tuesday, finding that PG&E officials repeatedly ignored warnings about its failing power lines, performed inadequate inspections to focus on profits and refused to learn from past catastrophes.
"We show that [PG&E] was absolutely criminally responsible for the death and destruction visited upon our friends, family and neighbors here in Butte County," District Attorney Mike Ramsey said. "We uncovered a corporate culture that started sometime back, but specifically in the mid '90s, to squeeze every dime they could with creative risk management mumbo jumbo, and to find creative financing to get as much profit as they could. They basically put profit above safety."
PG&E exhibited “a callous disregard” for the life and property of residents before its equipment ignited the Camp Fire, the 92-page summary said. “Through a corporate culture of elevating profits over safety by taking shortcuts in the safe delivery of an extremely dangerous product – high-voltage electricity – PG&E certainly lead otherwise good people down an ultimately destructive path."
The report paints a damning picture of PG&E as an entity that regularly shirked accountability and was shameless in its unwillingness to learn from past failures. The San Francisco-based utility was convicted in 2016 of multiple federal felonies after one of its gas transmission lines exploded in San Bruno in 2010, killing eight people. That tragedy resulted in a criminal conviction that put PG&E on a five-year probation that ends in January 2022.
Investigators determined the cause of the Camp Fire was a suspension “C” hook on a transmission tower that had worn through after decades hanging in the Feather River Canyon. The report notes PG&E would have known had it bothered to inventory the hook, maintain thorough inspections with qualified inspectors or even listened to its own employees. But its line inspections were designed not to detect flaws.
PG&E acquired the transmission line from the Great Western Power Company in 1930 and, despite realizing it was likely at the end of its life, did minimal maintenance and repair.
“In essence, in 1930 PG&E blindly bought a used car. PG&E drove that car until it fell apart," according to the report. “A reasonable person has the common sense to know that service and maintenance become more important as the car ages and the miles accumulate.”
“Catastrophic failure ... was not an ‘if' question; it was a ‘when’ question.”
In 2007, the report notes, a PG&E engineer requested $800,000 to replace a section of the Caribou-Palermo line, writing of “multiple conductor failures” because of aging equipment. The engineer noted “the probability of that failure is imminent due to the age of both the towers and the conductor.”
Utility officials allocated $200,000 to the project, but the work was scrapped in 2009 against the project manager’s concerns that without upgrades, “we could be picking up these towers out of the Feather River Canyon when they fall over."
In December 2012, a transmission tower on the line collapsed, dragging down four other towers and damaging a fifth. A PG&E engineer recommended inspecting the other towers, which did not happen “consistent with PG&E’s practice of not following up on clearly established potential safety and/or maintenance issues,” the report said.
Prosecutors found the inspections and patrols of the Caribou-Palermo line were hastily done and conducted by inexperienced, untrained and unqualified “troublemen.” The company also routinely moved money for repairs to its capital budget so it could pass the costs to consumers rather than shareholders, the grand jury found.
Despite being on probation that meant the company must not commit another crime, investigators said its negligence resulted in multiple wildfires in recent years.
Although it acknowledges it still has a lot of catching up to do after years of neglecting its equipment, PG&E maintains its electrical grid is far less dangerous than before the Camp Fire. Under a judge's orders, it says it has spent more than $1 billion trimming 1.3 million trees near its power lines and conducting exhaustive inspections for potential trouble spots. PG&E has budgeted another $1.3 billion this year.
“We are intently focused on reducing the risk of wildfire in our communities,” PG&E CEO Bill Johnson pledged after pleading guilty on behalf of the utility Tuesday.
Johnson also indicated in court that the grand jury findings wouldn't say anything PG&E doesn't already know.
“Our equipment started that fire,” Johnson ruefully acknowledged. ”PG&E will never forget the Camp Fire and all that it took away from the region.”
Despite PG&E’s pledge, critics fear more danger looms during an upcoming wildfire season after an unusually dry winter in Northern California.
This story includes reporting from KQED's Lily Jamali.