The burning question that no one is asking California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is when will PG&E be brought to justice?
It has been 13 months since PG&E — through what appears to be willful negligence — set the stage for the biggest mass killing in California and they didn’t need an automatic weapon to do it.
The corporate culture that has prevailed at PG&E since the dawn of this century by employing every accounting procedure possible to maximize profits while neglecting basic investments in maintaining a safe distribution system is responsible for the deaths of 85 human beings — mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons. The drive for fatter PG&E compensation and bonus checks for the executive suite destroyed 14,000 homes and changed 14,000 families forever. They will never be fully compensated for their actual financial losses let alone the suffering they are enduring. They are mere collateral damage just so Wall Street hedge funds could fatten their bottom line courtesy PG&E’s relentless squeezing of more profits from California Public Utilities Commission approved rate hikes that were authorized for the sole expressed purpose of replacing aging and dilapidated equipment.
Then there are the 5,000 other structures that burned while PG&E executives in their plush seats at 555 Beale Street in San Francisco monitored the inferno made possible by their hopping aboard the PG&E six- to seven-figure bonus gravy train powered by the for-profit utility’s culture of profits over safety.
Keep in mind at the time of the Camp Fire PG&E as a corporation was a convicted felon on federal probation for criminal acts connected with the company’s leveling a San Bruno neighborhood on Sept. 10, 2010 and burning 8 people to a crisp. That happened because PG&E willfully was sending volumes of natural gas down pipelines that weren’t designed or rated to handle such high pressure in a bid to squeeze out more profits.
If PG&E were a slumlord — and based on the condition of much of its system the comparison fits — a sharp district attorney would have them before a jury making the case that they should get 10 to 30 years for each 85 counts of negligent homicides.
We scorn landlords that are so obsessed with squeezing out profits they let their properties lapse into fire-trap status while they continually up the rent. How is what PG&E has done for the last 20 years much different? Instead of creating fire hazards by not maintaining apartments, PG&E did it by not maintaining power poles, transmission lines, transformers and other apparatus. Not only did PG&E keep raising rates but they justified a large chunk of the rate hikes they got the CPUC to approve on the pretext that a set amount would all go to replacing power poles that were way past their useful life of 50 years. We now know that much of the money did not go to where it was supposed to while at the same time PG&E profits were soaring.
Despite all of the dead bodies, destruction of over 1,400 homes, and even the near annihilation of an entire town that can be traced back to the PG&E way of doing business for the past 20 years, the folks up in Sacramento and Wall Street act as it the most important priority is saving PG&E as a corporation.
PG&E — after it finally agreed to compensate Butte County fire victims with $13.5 million — is now looking to Gov. Gavin Newsom to give them cover under the new wildfire fund so they can continue operating as a company.
The fact PG&E stock soared 16 percent on the news should send shivers down your spine if you are a PG&E ratepayer or if you have concerns about how many more people will die as the result of PG&E’s corporate culture.
The reason PG&E’s stock went up is Wall Street investors know a good thing when they see it when it comes to making money. Not only is PG&E a state protected monopoly but it is clear they can operate with impunity when it comes to cutting corners to sweeten their bottom line.
After all, this is a company that parlayed federal tax credits that were given for the expressed purpose of investing in infrastructure into not paying federal taxes for a decade while not upgrading critical parts of their system that PG&E itself identified as the highest priority that needed replacing.
Keep in mind that PG&E has now verified it has fire-related charges against its bottom line of $25 billion. That is on top of the $10 billion they want you and other ratepayers to fork over so they can update their system to continue plundering 16 million Californians after ignoring pressing needs for years so they can keep the profit tap wide open to flow into the coffers of Wall Street hedge funds.
What our constitutional officers in Sacramento should be doing instead of working to find ways to prop up PG&E is looking to protect lives and the economy of Northern California by arranging for entities to take over the system instead of rewarding the architects of the electrical utility world’s equivalent of the Bhopal chemical plant disaster that killed 3,787 in India in 1984.
PG&E’s string of corporate leaders going back 20 plus years are not innocent babes in the woods. They need to be held accountable for their actions that led to the deaths of 85 people.
It does not make sense that a company that was caught wantonly dumping toxic chemicals in Hinkley for decades after working overtime to cover up their action, was found guilty of killing people in San Bruno, and that admits it essentially killed 85 people in Paradise is still in business.
It makes even less sense that the people that profited the most from the death and destruction — corporate heads that were compensated with seven figure salaries and even earned bonuses almost as big in the very same years PG&E killed people, destroyed neighborhoods, or tested toxic wastelands that may have led to cancer clusters involving kids — are not being prosecuted for criminal negligence at the very least.
PG&E needs to cease to exist.
The state needs to seize control of the corporation given its continued threat to the safety and health of 16 million Californians. They then need to decide how to go forward whether it is municipalizing vast swaths of the system or selling parts of it.
It won’t be easy but in the end the only California utility with such an extensive trail of death and destruction will no longer exist.
And — equally important — there needs to be someone held responsible.
It is not OK that people who run companies and who profit handsomely and whose self-serving actions can be tied into death and destruction of people get to escape paying the price because the weapon they used to do so was a corporation.
It’s time Sacramento stands up for California.
It’s time for justice for Paradise.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.