US power firm admits manslaughter over 2018 California wildfire that killed 86 people

LOS ANGELES (AFP) – A California power company has pleaded guilty to manslaughter and causing the fire that devastated the entire town of Paradise in 2018, it said on Monday (Jan 23).

Pacific Gas and Electric’s faulty power lines were blamed for the deadliest blaze in the state’s modern history, which swept through the northern Californian town, killing 86 people.

The utility giant reached a plea agreement with local prosecutors in Butte Country, admitting 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of unlawful arson, a PG&E statement said.

“Our equipment started the fire. Those are the facts, and with this plea agreement we accept responsibility for our role in the fire,” said CEO and president Bill Johnson.

He added: “All of us at PG&E deeply regret this tragedy and the company’s part in it.”

Obsolete equipment, wooden power poles and uncleared land around high-voltage lines have been blamed for triggering the fires, and PG&E was accused of putting its profits ahead of safety.

The company will pay the maximum US$4 million (S$5.8 million) in fines, and finance rebuilding costs, including restoring water access lost in the fire’s destruction of a canal, it said.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy last year after facing billions of dollars in lawsuits over multiple fires since 2015.

It said on Monday that settlements reached with individuals and local agencies totalled over US$25 billion.

The settlement announced on Monday still needs bankruptcy court approval.

“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,” said Mr Johnson.

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