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California utility to plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in 2018 wildfires

Pacific Gas & Electric has agreed to plead guilty to 84 involuntary manslaughter counts in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in California's history.

Pacific Gas & Electric also pleading guilty to one count of unlawfully starting a fire

In this Nov. 8, 2018 file photo, a home burns as a wildfire called the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif. If the deal announced Monday is approved by a federal bankruptcy court, it will end all state criminal proceedings against PG&E related to the Camp Fire. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Pacific Gas & Electric has agreed to plead guilty to 84 involuntary manslaughter counts in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in California's history.

The plea by California's largest utility was announced on Monday by its parent PG&E Corp, three days after the utility accepted tighter oversight and pledged billions of dollars to improve safety and help wildfire victims, under an agreement approved by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

That agreement ended a major roadblock to PG&E's planned emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as Newsom devotes his attention to the coronavirus outbreak in his state.

"Our equipment started the fire. Those are the facts, and with this plea agreement we accept responsibility for our role in the fire," PG&E CEO and president Bill Johnson said in a statement.

Pacific Gas & Electric said it entered its plea through a March 17 agreement with the Butte County District Attorney's office, which would end all state criminal proceedings against the San Francisco-based company related to the Camp Fire.

Under the deal, PG&E also pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully starting a fire and will pay a maximum $3.5 million US fine, plus $500,000 in costs. In addition, it will pay up to $15 million to provide water to residents after the fire destroyed the utility's Miocene Canal in Butte County.

Utility could be put up for sale

The fire began on Nov. 8, 2018, and destroyed much of Paradise, a town of about 26,000 people, and nearby Concow. More than 18,000 buildings were destroyed.

Butte County officials have said 85 people died in the Camp Fire. It wasn't immediately clear why PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter instead of 85.

"We cannot replace all that the fire destroyed, but our hope is that this plea agreement, along with our rebuilding efforts, will help the community move forward from this tragic incident," Johnson said.

Some fire victims will receive payouts under PG&E's proposed bankruptcy reorganization plan, which was submitted on March 16, PG&E said.

The settlement requires approval by the Butte County Superior Court, and by the federal bankruptcy court overseeing PG&E's Chapter 11 case.

PG&E and its utility unit filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing more than $30 billion US in potential liabilities from California wildfires in 2017 and 2018 linked to its equipment.

The company previously reached $25.5 billion of settlements related to wildfires in 2015, 2017 and 2018, including $13.5 billion for victims and $12 billion for insurers, cities, counties and other public entities.

Under the settlement with Newsom, PG&E agreed to pay no shareholder dividends for three years, saving about $4 billion, and pursue a "rate-neutral" $7.5 billion financing package that would benefit ratepayers.

PG&E also agreed to put itself up for sale if it cannot emerge from Chapter 11 by a state-imposed June 30 deadline, before the next wildfire season begins.

With files from The Associated Press

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