Californians could have been excused if they reacted with a ho-hum the other day, when Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch filed 33 criminal charges against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for injuring six firefighters and endangering public health with smoke and ash from the 2019 Kincade fire that burned for two weeks.
The blaze destroyed 374 buildings and homes and caused almost 100,000 people to flee as it burned 120 square miles, some of which was not in wild or forested land.
Why react indifferently when a utility company faces criminal charges for the wrongdoing and negligence that caused this blaze, for which PG&E has accepted government findings assigning it blame?
That’s easy: Utility companies have been convicted or “taken responsibility” for plenty of fires and other disasters they admittedly helped cause over the last 10 years. So far, not a single corporate executive has served even one second of jail time for all the damage done. Surely, someone must be responsible for all these corporate crimes. Actual humans had to be making decisions, for example, when California’s privately owned utilities misused approximately $65 billion customers paid for alleged facility maintenance between the mid-1950s and 2015. But no one took personal responsibility. No one ever has.
It was that way when San Diego Gas & Electric caused the 2007 Witch fire that killed two and injured 55 firefighters. Similarly, no one at Southern California Edison paid any personal price for the 2017 Thomas fire that burned from near Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County all the way into the city of Ventura. And no one went to jail last year when PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 manslaughter counts in the 2018 Camp fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County.
It was the same after the 2010 PG&E gas pipeline explosion that killed eight in the Crestmoor residential neighborhood of San Bruno, resulting in a felony negligence conviction for the company, still under criminal probation for that failure.
In each case, the utilities paid fines, but recouped them soon after in their next round of rate increases granted by the ever cooperative and submissive (to utilities) state Public Utilities Commission.
It’s high time this changed and that paying fines and damages for fires and other “accidents” caused by utility company neglect and incompetence becomes something more than a routine cost of doing business, the way it has been lately.
Of course, Gov. Gavin Newsom greased things greatly for the companies by helping write and then signing off on SB 1054, which created a $13.5 billion state Wildfire Fund to help utilities pay for future damages they cause. Customers are regularly dunned on their bills to fund this gift to irresponsible regional monopoly companies that have yet to demonstrate why they deserve to hold those monopolies. The same customers, now wearing their taxpayer hats, have also funded a new half-billion-dollar wildfire prevention fund, which Newsom and his cronies in the Legislature hailed as a great advance.
But this was no advance; rather, it was just more enabling of criminal companies and their executives.
Will some of those executives face anything new in the upcoming Kincade fire trial?
D.A. Ravitch and her staff and hired experts went to the ignition site of the Kincade fire “as soon as it was safe,” and found the inferno began when a cable broke in high winds, causing molten material to drop onto dry vegetation below.
That old cable should have been replaced long before it arced and fell. Someone, somewhere decided not to do this. That person ought to be held responsible.
Newsom and the Legislature can devote all the money and manpower they like to wildfire prevention and planning, but it won’t alter the utilities’ longtime practice of negligence and irresponsibility until people making the decisions understand they will be held to account personally when their terrible choices cause terrifying consequences for people they are paid to serve.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net