PG&E files for bankruptcy after California wildfires

Los Angeles (AFP) –


California utility PG&E, facing billions of dollars in potential liabilities over its role in a series of deadly wildfires, filed for bankruptcy protection on Tuesday.

The company, the largest utility in America's most populous state, has been under intensifying scrutiny in the wake of the so-called 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California that left 86 people dead, destroyed some 18,000 buildings and came on the heels of deadly wildfires in the state in 2017.

That Camp Fire catastrophe, the deadliest fire in the state's modern history, has sharpened questions about whether a company with a troubled history has put profit ahead of safety.

PG&E, whose shares have fallen 72 percent over the last year, could face huge liabilities if investigations reveal its equipment was directly responsible for the fire.

The company is committed to providing safe and reliable electricity throughout the bankruptcy and to work for "an orderly, fair and expeditious resolution of its liabilities resulting from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires," it said in a statement.

"To be clear, we have heard the calls for change and we are determined to take action throughout this process to build the energy system our customers want and deserve," interim chief John Simon, who has led the company following the resignation earlier this month of former Chief Executive Geisha Williams, also said in the statement.

One line of inquiry for investigators is over what role a damaged 115,000-volt line at one of PG&E's towers reported by the company just moments before the fire may have played in the conflagration.

Documents provided to AFP by the operator said the power line, called "Caribou Palermo," was put into service in the 1920s by Great Western Power Company, which was acquired by PG&E in 1930.

"It is clear that the Camp Fire resulted from PG&E?s willful and conscious disregard of public safety," according to a lawsuit filed by Butte County against the utility, which said the company failed to properly maintain vegetation growth near its electric lines.

"They don't need to control Mother Nature," said John Fiske, an attorney representing more than 1,000 victims. "What they need to control is their own assets."

- Troubled history -

Critics point to the company's record of problems, including 737 counts of criminal negligence over failing to trim trees near power lines following a big fire in 1994.

Regulators with the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC, found that PG&E diverted $77.6 million from its tree-trimming budget to other uses, according to the Butte lawsuit.

"During that same time, PG&E underspent its authorized budgets for maintaining its systems by $495 million and instead, used this money to boost corporate profits," according to the Butte claim.

The company was also fined $1.6 billion over a 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California that killed eight and injured 58.

A federal judge who oversaw the company's criminal probation following the pipeline disaster said earlier this month he might order the company to re-inspect its entire electrical grid.

Mindy Spatt of the public utilities watchdog TURN also blames regulators for the problems, saying the CPUC "has not been able to provide sufficient oversight."

But CPUC President Michael Picker has told state lawmakers the agency's prime role was as an economic regulator to ensure adequate, affordable electricity and that it lacks the manpower to oversee safety for all of the power lines throughout the state.