REDDING (CBS SF/AP) — A Northern California district attorney announced manslaughter and numerous other charges against Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Friday after its equipment sparked the Zogg Fire last year that killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes.
It is the latest action against the nation's largest utility, which pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in a 2018 blaze ignited by its long-neglected electrical grid that nearly destroyed the town of Paradise and became the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century.
In a news conference, Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett announced the 31 charges, including 11 felonies, against the company. She said in July that her office had determined that PG&E was "criminally liable" for last year's Zogg Fire, which burned near the city of Redding.
Pushed by strong winds, the fire began on Sept. 27, 2020, and raged through the rugged Sierra Nevada and communities, killing four people, burning about 200 homes and blackening about 87 square miles (225 square kilometers) of land.
In March, state investigators concluded that the fire was sparked by a gray pine tree that fell onto a PG&E transmission line. Shasta and Tehama counties have sued the utility alleging negligence, saying PG&E had failed to remove the tree even though it had been marked for removal two years earlier.
PG&E, which has an estimated 16 million customers in central and Northern California, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after its aging equipment was blamed for a series of fires, including the 2018 Camp Fire near Paradise that killed 85 people and destroyed 10,000 homes, and it faced hundreds of lawsuits.
Company officials have acknowledged that PG&E hasn't lived up to expectations in the past but said changes in leadership and elsewhere ensure it's on the right track and will do better. They have listed a wide range of improvements that include using more advanced technology to avoid setting wildfires and help detect them quicker.
In a statement released after the announcement of the charges Friday, PG&E CEO Patti Poppe denied that her company committed any crimes.
"We've accepted CAL FIRE's determination, reached earlier this year, that a tree contacted our electric line and started the Zogg Fire. We accept that conclusion. But we did not commit a crime," Poppe wrote. "
We're putting everything we've got into preventing wildfires and reducing the risk. Though it may feel satisfying for the company of PG&E to be charged with a crime, what I know is the company of PG&E is people, 40,000 people who get up every day to make it safe and to end catastrophic wildfire and tragedies like this," Poppe added. "Let's be clear, my coworkers are not criminals. We welcome our day in court so people can learn just that."
PG&E also remains on criminal probation for a 2010 pipeline explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area city of San Bruno that killed eight people, giving a federal judge oversight of the company. The judge and California power regulators have rebuked PG&E for breaking promises to reduce the dangers posed by trees near its power lines.
PG&E emerged from bankruptcy last summer and negotiated a $13.5 billion settlement with some wildfire victims. But it still faces both civil and criminal actions.
The Sonoma County district attorney's office filed charges in April over a 2019 blaze that forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate.
In the meantime, most of the roughly 70,000 victims who have filed claims for devastation caused by PG&E's past misdeeds still are awaiting payment from a trust created during the bankruptcy. The trust, which is run independently of PG&E, is facing a nearly $2 billion shortfall because half its funding came in company stock.
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