California utility charged with manslaughter following deadly wildfire
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California utility charged with manslaughter following deadly wildfire

California prosecutors on Friday charged Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) — one of the largest investor-owned utilities in the US — with involuntary manslaughter, finding a connection between the utility’s equipment and the deaths of four people in the 2020 Zogg Fire.

“We have sufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that [PG&E] is criminally liable for their reckless ignition of the Zogg Fire and the deaths and destruction that it caused,” said Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett at a televised press conference.

She announced her office had filed a 31-count complaint against PG&E, alleging eleven felonies and 20 misdemeanors in connection with the fire. This includes involuntary manslaughter, failure to perform a legal duty, recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, negligent fire starting, and negligent emission of air pollution.

The charges follow an investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) which determined that the fire “was caused by a pine tree contacting electrical distribution lines owned and operated by [PG&E] . . ..” In October 2020, CAL FIRE took possession of PG&E equipment as part of its investigation. In one of the reports, an investigator observed “numerous areas where there were dead trees within striking distance of the PG&E conductors” and “clearance violations around non-exempt PG&E owned utility poles.”

The fire burned for 16 days in late September 2020 and spread roughly 56,00 acres in Northern California. The damage was significant: four confirmed fire personnel and civilian fatalities and over 200 residential and commercial structures were destroyed.

This is the latest series of allegations brought against PG&E in recent years. In 2017, the utility was convicted of several felonies related to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion. Last year, it was convicted of 84 felonies related to the 2018 Camp Fire—the deadliest wildfire in California history.

Facing liabilities of upwards of $30 billion for the collective charges, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019. Following the appointment of a new chief executive and board, the company emerged from bankruptcy in July 2020. Under a plan approved by a federal judge, the company will take part in a $20 billion state-wide fund to cover liabilities from future wildfires sparked by its equipment and transmissions lines.