California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a recent federal court filing said Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) could face criminal charges, including murder, if it’s determined that the utility recklessly operated equipment that caused deadly wildfires in Northern California over the last two years.
The filing came in response to a request by District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco, who is overseeing PG&E's probation in a criminal case related to a 2010 natural gas transmission pipeline rupture and explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno. A jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found PG&E guilty on multiple counts in 2016, resulting in five years probation and a $3 million fine.
Alsup asked Becerra to identify each potential charge the San Francisco-based combination utility could face for its role in the most recent wildfires. Alsup also has requests to PG&E, federal prosecutors and a third-party independent court monitor to submit their interpretations of the utility's role in the wildfires.
A PG&E spokesperson said the utility continues to work with state and community officials to develop "comprehensive safety solutions" for the future. "Our most important responsibility is public and workforce safety, and we are focused on assessing our infrastructure with the goal of further enhancing safety and helping protect all customers from ever-increasing wildfire threats.”
The action by the attorney general’s office does not make any allegations regarding the utility's criminal liability. Authorities in Butte County, site of the recent Camp Fire, have said it is too early to determine if it will bring charges. Regardless, PG&E continues to face increased criticism from government and community organizations. More than 20 lawsuits have been filed as a result of fires in Northern California over the last two years.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) recently said alternatives for PG&E need to be evaluated this year, including the safety and reliability of utility service, and operational integrity and technical unity of its gas and electric systems. Citing safety problems between the San Bruno disaster and the recent wildfires, CPUC President Michael Picker said the regulatory agency "was, and remains, concerned that the safety problems being experienced by PG&E were not just one-off situations or bad luck, but indicated a deeper and more systemic problem."
The CPUC opened an investigation last month to consider penalties and ordered action against PG&E for "systemic violations" of rules to prevent damage to gas pipelines during excavation activities by third-party contractors.