To understand the threat PG&E is to your safety and that of your loved ones as well as how toxic they are to the economic health of 16 million people in Northern California, you need look no further than the firm’s own words.
PG&E in July responded to a Wall Street Journal article that essentially made the case that PG&E systematically and intentionally ignored critical maintenance.
More precisely it centered on its ill-fated decision — one of many by the way when it comes to maintenance and operations to squeeze out more profits as the loved ones of the eight people PG&E killed in the San Bruno natural gas line explosion in 2010 know all too well — regarding the Caribou-Palermo transmission line.
It is the Butte County line that PG&E concedes likely started the Camp Fire inferno that killed 86 people, destroyed 14,000 homes, burned 5,000 other structures, plus created $30 billion in liabilities for the for-profit utility.
Federal District Judge William Alsup, who is essentially overseeing PG&E’s “probation” for its 2016 felony conviction for egregious safety violations, ordered the utility to respond to each paragraph in the Wall Street Journal story.
PG&E acknowledged that it had delayed numerous upgrades on the Caribou-Palermo line.
But here’s the kicker. PG&E said the work wasn’t maintenance-related as the Journal story stated. Instead the work it delayed was meant to comply with 2010 industry guidelines put in place to guarantee power lines don’t sag too close to the ground and vegetation and cause a fire.
There obviously were maintenance issues with the transmission tower that forever scarred the lives of at least 14,000 families. It just that PG&E contends it was not one of the problem towers on the same line that it knew was in need of maintenance.
Everyone seems to have glossed over PG&E’s “excuse” — which is the 2010 industry guidelines.
Wildfires sparked by power lines are not a new phenomenon in California. Transmission lines — such as the ones that slash through the heart of Manteca — are the 900-pound gorillas of the PG&E distribution center. They carry the most juice and therefore are the most deadly.
PG&E essentially admitted in the court ordered response that they intentionally delayed best safety practices established by their more responsible peers in the electrical industry for nine years on their system’s potentially most dangerous threat to public safety — a transmission line.
Nine years they ignored what they knew they had to do.
During those nine years PG&E posted record profits helped by their friends in Congress who arranged generous tax credits so they wouldn’t be bothered with burdensome payments to the IRS like the rest of us including the 94 people their well-documented disregard for safety killed in Paradise and San Bruno.
In the years they had record profits and paid no taxes and despite their acknowledgement of needed work on just the transmission line in Butte County alone there were pressing serious issues with the condition of other transmission towers plus for 9 years they ignored industry-wide adopted best practices. Instead of spending a chunk of the record profits on stepped up maintenance, PG&E honchos — who are some of the biggest individual holders of PG&E stock — lined their own pockets
The court ordered response is quite a self-indictment by PG&E.
Keep in mind this is just one piece of a gigantic system of which much is not in highly visible locations such as Manteca where PG&E’s brass can fatten their bonus checks by delaying or ignoring maintenance work request made by frontline employees.
Our judicial system is too polite to call this murder given PG&E executives didn’t know their victims except as account numbers that kept the cash flowing in to underwrite their seven- to eight-figure lifestyles. The law would argue it doesn’t quite meet the premeditated criteria needed to meet the threshold of a murder prosecution. It might be negligence but not on the level of simply being careless. Butte County was not their first rodeo. PG&E lines have sparked many other wildfires.
The loss of 86 lives in Butte County was no accident. It was the result of a combination of factors including PG&E doing what it does best — compromising safety to maximize profits.
PG&E did not murder 8 people in San Bruno or 86 people in Butte County that the utility concedes their equipment likely started the fire that killed them as defined by law. But they are certainly dead because of the PG&E corporate culture.
PG&E is a convicted felon. Yet it is still allowed to operate as a government protected entity that has a monopoly, and state guaranteed minimum profits of 10.5 percent.
In what universe is it prudent for the government to let an entity that is a bankrupt felon responsible for the death of at least 94 people, burned down at least 14,000 homes, and is so unreliable that they forced rolling brownouts on customers 16 years ago and are now saying their new and improved version of a company has adopted self-imposed blackouts of three to five days as part of their business as usual plan?
It is impossible to over stress what PG&E did in Butte County and god knows where else. The Caribou-Palermo line was not a rinky-dink line serving a residential neighborhood or strung along 3 miles of country roads serving four or five customers. It was a major transmission line.
The transgressions of PG&E run the gamut from election law violations in two San Francisco votes that were conducted to try and free The City from the clutches of PG&E to paper thin staffing that led PG&E to gift a Sacramento family on a Christmas morn with the death of a father and husband by blowing up a home.
There is more, a lot more: Poisoning water and ultimately people in Hinckley as well as hiring consultants that hacked into the computers of government agencies on their behalf. Playing with fire after they successfully lobbied the legislature for deregulation so they could work on maximizing profits first and foremost and then ending up burning customers with even higher rates as they plunged the firm into its first bankruptcy.
You will notice you don’t read about such stuff connected with Modesto Irrigation District, the City of Lodi, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Lathrop Irrigation District, the City of Roseville, and Santa Clara Power to name a few. They are all public power providers that manage not to kill customers, take out entire neighborhoods, violate state election laws, poison drinking water, be a party to corporate espionage, or let equipment fall apart.
The fact PG&E is still in business is a testimony to friends they have made with campaign donations in Sacramento.
Gavin Newsom is no Hiram Johnson. Whether he can still rise to the occasion to protect the same two thirds of the state that the ruthless corrupt Southern Pacific Railroad had a chokehold on at the dawn of the 20th century has yet to be seen.
If any other felon admitted to complicity in the deaths of 86 people while on federal probation in connection with the previous deaths of eight people would they be allowed to walk freely?
The court may not be able to imprison PG&E per se and throw away the key but the state can certainly prevent them from writing yet another chapter of death, destruction, and lawless behavior while profiting handsomely off their victims by getting them out of the power business and municipalizing the system.
Maybe we are looking at this wrong. Maybe this is really a federal racketeering case with the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Legislature, the governor’s office and several statewide constitutional offices in cahoots with PG&E given how they have enabled what is arguably the most sinister corporation with blood on its hands when it comes to doing — or not doing — what it takes to pocket as many almighty dollars as possible.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.