PG&E bosses cop a plea to manslaughter in fire deaths

By Jeff Powers
April 20, 2020
Joel Britton, left, currently SWP candidate for U.S. Congress, speaks with carpenter Tony Worino in his RV at Camp Fire refugee camp in Chico, California, in December 2018.
Militant/Eric SimpsonJoel Britton, left, currently SWP candidate for U.S. Congress, speaks with carpenter Tony Worino in his RV at Camp Fire refugee camp in Chico, California, in December 2018.

OAKLAND, Calif. — On March 23 Pacific Gas & Electric bosses struck a plea bargain with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, saying they would admit guilt on felony counts stemming from the deadly 2018 Camp Fire and pay a $4 million fine. The deal avoids jail time for company officers who plead guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of unlawfully causing the fire. 

PG&E has already been convicted of felony in previous fires. In 2017 the company was found guilty on six felony charges after a pipeline explosion killed eight people and injured dozens more in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno. 

Have you ever heard of another case where someone skips prison after admitting to killing people, not once but twice?

The November 2018 Camp Fire was the most devastating fire in California history. Before it was contained,  154,000 acres had been burned, over 15,000 structures were destroyed, the town of Paradise had been leveled and over 80 people were dead. 

PG&E bosses had consciously failed to maintain their equipment or to clear combustible dry brush near their transmission lines to save money. When one 100-year-old line came down in a dry spell, the resulting fire raced out of control. 

Last December, PG&E agreed to a $13.5 billion settlement for victims of the Camp Fire, the 2015 Butte Fire and a number of other fires the company has been held responsible for over the past several years. PG&E declared bankruptcy in January 2019, saying it faced potential liabilities of $30 billion. Management hopes that the settlement will improve its prospects for emerging from bankruptcy before a court-imposed deadline in June. 

Half of the $13.5 billion is to come from PG&E stock, which has lost 57 percent of its value since February. The PG&E bankruptcy court plans to make a final ruling on the proposal by the end of May, and the deal can still unravel. Already three members of the court-appointed 11-member panel of fire victims have resigned in opposition to the agreement. 

Julie Whited lost almost everything she owned in the Camp Fire. She and her family narrowly escaped Paradise in their cars the day of the inferno. Whited, a member of Communications Workers of America, works in a domestic violence abuse center in Chico. 

“I don’t think that $13.5 billion is enough,” Whited told the Militant  in a phone interview. “So many people were affected by the fires and they will never be able to replace what they lost.

“I was lucky,” she continued. “For many months after my home in Paradise was destroyed I was taken in by friends who live in Chico and I slept on their couch. I will always be grateful for their kindness.

“Tying our money to the value of PG&E stock is stupid,” Whited said. “My lawyer says to expect the money no sooner than early summer. There is no telling where the stock value will be at that time.”

‘For workers control of production’

“PG&E management was responsible for the devastating Camp Fire and others,” said Joel Britton, Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Congress from California in the 13th District. “Management had known for years that the power line that started the fire needed to be replaced. Their criminal negligence was the cause of the catastrophe.

“The settlement doesn’t do anything to address the main question at hand,” Britton said. “Workers know what is safe and what is dangerously unsafe. We need to organize ourselves to fight when the bosses create a problem. Out of these battles our unions will be transformed. PG&E should be nationalized under workers control.

“The PG&E bosses and the California and federal governments lie to working people about their production costs and profits,” Britton said. “We should demand they open their books for inspection by workers and consumers. We need to organize in our millions to fight for workers control of production, which will be a school for learning how to run the economy for ourselves in the interests of all, and a step toward taking political power into our own hands.”