California Wildfires Spark Legal and Political Battles for PG&E

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Pacific Gas & Electric failed to inspect a transmission line that caused the lethal Camp Fire blaze last year in Paradise, California, according to a 700-page investigation released Monday by the California Public Utilities Commission, Reuters reported.

The news comes as PG&E, the state’s largest utility with 16 million customers, faces potential collapse or possible takeover by the state of California. The revelation of PG&E’s liability in the deadly Camp Fire wildfire follows an earlier investigation by the Wall Street Journal which revealed that PG&E’s aging electric power lines have sparked one wildfire per day on average.

The total wildfire tally in a three-and-a-half-year period? More than 1,500 wildfires between June 2014 and December 2017.

PG&E Legal Woes: Wildfire Victim Lawsuits and Potential Murder Charges

The investor-owned utility may owe billions to the thousands of Californians who have sued PG&E, blaming it for equipment failures and shoddy maintenance that cost them their homes and loved ones in wildfires up and down the state. PG&E is currently in talks with wildfire victims about a Chapter 11 plan that could pay victims about $13.5 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Last month, a federal judge in California sided with wildfire victims, rejecting an attempt by PG&E to limit the amount of compensation it owes residents whose properties were destroyed by wildfires. Under a state doctrine called inverse condemnation, the utility can be held liable for property damage due to its equipment, even if it wasn’t negligent, the Wall Street Journal reported. PG&E argued the doctrine doesn’t apply to its equipment, but the judge disagreed.

The utility filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January. At the time, PG&E estimated it could be on the hook for upwards of $30 billion in damage claims from wildfires in its service areas in 2017 and 2018.

The utility said it is working on a plan to fairly compensate wildfire victims and improve the safety of its power lines without increasing electricity rates.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee reported that California Attorney General Xavier Becerra warned that the utility could be prosecuted for murder, manslaughter or lesser criminal charges if investigators determine that “reckless operation” of electrical equipment caused any of the deadly Northern California wildfires in the past two years.

California Weighs Takeover

This week, Loretta M. Lynch, former president of the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees PG&E, told the Los Angeles Times that the state should take over the bankrupt utility and possibly other private utilities and form a statewide government-run power company.

Lynch said the state has the legal authority to assume control of the utility, but only a few state lawmakers are currently rallying behind a government takeover.

Last month, the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, hinted at a potential state takeover if PG&E doesn’t emerge from bankruptcy protection soon. PG&E filed a bankruptcy reorganization plan Sept. 9 but has yet to finalize the details of how it will compensate creditors and wildfire victims. Newsom said he’s focused on brokering a solution to quickly lift PG&E out of bankruptcy, with a plan to guarantee the safety and reliability of its massive power grid for millions of Californians, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Fired Employee Says PG&E Flagrantly Disregarded Workers’ Wildfire Concerns

In a separate court filing, a former PG&E front-line worker claims he was fired after complaining about an unsafe type of circuit breaker, a particular recloser called TripSaver that can ignite dry vegetation, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The line worker, Todd Hearn, claims that he and other utility workers warned against installing TripSavers in high fire-risk areas such as Napa County, but managers ignored the complaints.

Originally published December 5, 2019.

By Nicole Knight

Nicole Knight is a freelance writer based in Southern California. A former reporter for the Orange County Register, she most recently covered issues related to women’s health and economic justice for the nonprofit site Rewire.News. Her bylines have appeared in outlets ranging from Pacific Standard to Parents.com, reflecting her varied interests. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Follow her on Twitter @nicolekshine.

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