Last year's Camp Fire, which literally wiped out the town of Paradise, California and killed 85 people, was ultimately caused by an aging power line that PG&E had failed to maintain properly. Furthermore, that egregious example of gross negligence is just one indication of “systemic problems” and the ways in which this convicted corporate felon and recidivist has been ignoring safety regulations for years.
This is the conclusion of an extensive investigation by the California Public Utilities Commission. Although an earlier preliminary investigation had confirmed that PG&E's equipment was indeed the cause of the fire (which PG&E admits), the current 700-page report reveals a dysfunctional corporate culture that blatantly puts profits above human safety and a company that does not hesitate to save on costs by “deferring” needed maintenance – and ultimately, externalizing those costs to its customers, with tragic consequences.
The immediate cause of the Camp Fire was the failure of a hook on PG&E's Caribou-Palermo transmission line – which first started carrying electricity to homes and businesses when Warren Harding was President. According to a Wall Street Journal report last July, PG&E had been aware that the line was in desperate need of replacement and frequent inspections – neither of which took place. But that's not the worst of it. According to an attorney representing plaintiffs suing the company, this type of negligence is widespread throughout the system. “It's not one bad day, not one missed hook,” he says. “They let the equipment run until it fails.”
And PG&E was well aware of the fact.
PG&E is still on court-supervised probation over the role it played in the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion near San Francisco, which killed 8 people, injured dozens more and destroyed 38 homes. The corporate “person” was convicted on six felony charges – which would have put a natural person committing such crimes in prison for decades. At that time, a representative of the National Transportation Board said the accident represented “a failure of the entire system – a system of checks and balances that should have prevented this disaster.” He may have well have said it yesterday – because over a decade later, with more lives lost and more property destroyed, PG&E's behavior has not changed.
Unfortunately, although the ill-advised FEC vs. Citizens United gave corporate “people” like PG&E the rights and protections of natural human beings (in some cases, more), it has failed to force human accountability upon them. Corporations cannot be locked up. They could be given the “death penalty” by revoking their charter, but politicians and lawmakers have demonstrated a singular and contemptible lack of courage on this matter – until now.
Will this be the final straw? San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo is one of many who believe so. He is pushing for a plan that would take PG&E away from its shareholders and convert it into a publicly-owned cooperative. In light of PG&E's criminal negligence, he says that the traditional capitalist model of investor ownership of the utility “no longer works in a world threatened by the impacts of climate change, and it calls upon us to reimagine a utility more directly accountable to its customers.” His plan is gaining support from other California mayors.
Meanwhile, the results of the California PUC investigation may lead the state to impose additional fines and penalties and is certain to have an impact on other current investigations – as well as decisions by the Attorneys General of both California and Butte County as to whether or not to file yet more criminal charges.