California’s largest utility provider could face murder charges for wildfires, AG says

Updated 3:02 PM EST, Sun December 30, 2018
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(CNN) —  

California’s largest public utility provider could face murder or manslaughter charges if it were found responsible for causing the state’s recent deadly wildfires, according to court documents filed by the state attorney general.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co., or PG&E, could potentially face a range of criminal offenses if any of the wildfires broke out as a result of the utility failing to properly operate and maintain power lines, per an amicus brief filed in US District Court Friday by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

PG&E, which provides electricity to about 16 million Californians, has been under scrutiny for how it maintains its infrastructure amid questions about what caused the Camp Fire – the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history.

According to the brief, potential charges range from minor misdemeanors related to clearing vegetation around power lines, to misdemeanors or felonies if it started the fire, up to “homicide offenses like implied-malice murder and involuntary manslaughter.”

The potential charges would be dependent on an investigation into the cause of the fire and – if PG&E were found liable – on the utility provider’s degree of negligence and recklessness.

The attorney general’s office has not come to a conclusion about PG&E’s responsibility for the recent fires and is not taking a position on the issue, the brief states.

The brief was filed in response to a request by US District Court Judge William Alsup that officials explain what crimes PG&E might potentially have committed if it were ultimately found responsible for the wildfires.

In response to Becerra’s court filing, PG&E said it is determined to doing everything it can to reduce wildfire risks.

“PG&E’s most important responsibility is public and workforce safety. Our focus continues to be on assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety and helping our customers continue to recover and rebuild,” it said in a statement.

Last month Alsup ordered the company to explain any potential role it could have played in causing wildfires, including the Camp Fire, which broke out on November 8 and claimed at least 85 lives.

In the blaze’s aftermath, PG&E reported “an outage” on a transmission line in the area where the blaze began, about 15 minutes before it started. The company also reported finding power equipment and a downed power pole riddled with bullet holes and a downed line with tree branches on it.

The cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, according to state fire officials.

Utility has a checkered past

In recent years PG&E has suffered repeated blows to its reputation for its connection to other disasters and failing to meet regulatory standards.

It’s currently on probation after being found guilty on several charges for a 2010 PG&E pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed 8 people and injured more than 50 others. PG&E was placed on probation and fined $1.6 billion by the commission for unsafe operation of its gas transmission system.

Last year, the company was sentenced to another five years of probation and fined $3 million after being found guilty of multiple violations of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act.

PG&E equipment was also found to have caused 17 fires last year, often after branches or trees came in contact with power lines, per California fire officials.

Investigators determined that in 11 cases the company violated codes regarding brush clearance or related violations and referred the matters to prosecutors. No charges have been filed against PG&E in relation to the violations.

Earlier this month, the California Public Utilities Commission claimed PG&E failed to locate and mark natural gas pipelines in a timely manner and pressured workers to falsify data so the locating and marking work would not appear as late.

PG&E agreed with the CPUC’s findings in a statement released at the time.

“We’re committed to accurate and thorough reporting and record-keeping, and we didn’t live up to that commitment in this case,” said spokesman Matt Nauman.

The company said it was taking action to meet regulatory standards including upgrading its protocol, hiring more workers and giving them better training.

CNN’s Nicole Chavez, Christina Maxouris, Chris Boyette, Madeleine Ayer and Scott Glover contributed to this report.