Camp Fire: PG&E says its possible role in wildfires could create legal problems

PG&E acknowledged Monday that its possible role in Northern California’s recent wave of massive wildfires could create fresh legal problems for a company already on criminal probation following a natural gas pipeline disaster.

Responding to a federal judge’s order, PG&E’s lawyers submitted an extensive series of documents outlining its cooperation with state investigations into the Nov. 8 Camp Fire in Paradise — the deadliest in state history — as well as the series of deadly fires in California’s wine country in October 2017.

Cal Fire has already determined that PG&E’s power equipment was responsible for many of the wine country fires, and is investigating whether problems on a transmission tower caused the Camp Fire.

The federal judge overseeing the case involving a 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno recently ordered PG&E to explain whether PG&E’s actions leading up to the wildfires violated any laws — and violated the terms of its probation.

PG&E in 2016 was found guilty of six felony charges in that pipeline disaster, which killed eight people. Its sentence included five years of probation, during which it was supposed to refrain from committing any more crimes.

In its response, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. didn’t admit to breaking any laws but acknowledged said it would “implicate the requirements” of its probation if the utility company is found to have committed any crimes.

“If it were determined that a wildfire had been started by reckless operation or maintenance of PG&E power lines,” PG&E attorneys told the judge, “that would, if the specific circumstances gave rise to a violation of federal, state, or local statutes, implicate the requirements” of the probation judgment, “which provides that while on probation,
PG&E shall not commit another Federal, State, or local crime.”

It remains unclear what additional potential penalties PG&E could face if it’s found criminally liable for the 2017 and 2018 fires. It’s already facing scores of lawsuits and likely billions of dollars in potential civil penalties from the fires, and the Public Utilities Commission is considering breaking up the utility.

In its filing Monday, the beleaguered utility also provided summaries of reports it’s delivered to state investigators on the causes of the Camp Fire and the 2017 wine country fires.

The utility explained that mechanical problems have been found on a transmission tower near where the fire is believed to have started, in a remote area of Butte County called Pulga. Bullet holes were found on a power pole several miles away, at a different site being investigated by Cal Fire. The company had previously disclosed those issues to state regulators.

PG&E pointed out, in fact, it was among the first to alert officials about the fire.

PG&E stressed that the exact cause of the Camp Fire remains unknown. “Cal Fire has not released its conclusions about the cause of the Camp Fire, although it has publicly identified two potential incident locations at which PG&E facilities are located,” the company’s lawyers wrote.

In a legal brief last week, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said PG&E could be charged with anything from murder down to a misdemeanor crime if the utility were determined to have causes fires through reckless operation or maintenance of its electrical grid system.

-By Dale Kasler and Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee
Bay Area NewsCalifornia

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