Pacific Gas & Electric, whose utility equipment was found responsible for igniting California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, said it will use money from a $13.5 billion wildfire victims’ compensation trust to pay criminal fines levied against it over its role in the 2018 blaze.
“The $4 million fine will be administered as part of the Fire Victim Trust,” PG&E spokesperson Lynsey Paolo told Northern California public radio station KQED Wednesday. “The Fire Victim Trust administration process will begin when PG&E emerges from Chapter 11.”
A PG&E spokesperson, in a statement to HuffPost on Thursday, said the decision to use the fire victims’ funds was made as part of an agreement in its past Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.
“The plan we have filed which represents a consensus among all of our stakeholders, including representatives of fire victims, provides that fire claims will be paid from the Fire Victim Trust, including fines and penalties, which would include the $4 million fine,” the statement read.
It added that any changes to the agreement could have “significant implications” for other agreements, which could “jeopardize our principal goal which is to get fire victims paid as soon as possible.”
This news follows the beleaguered utility company, which filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, agreeing on Monday to pay approximately $4 million ― in penalties as well as reimbursement to the Butte County District Attorney’s office ― for its role in the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people just north of Sacramento. The company also agreed to plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting a fire.
“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 Corporation CEO and President Bill Johnson said in a statement that vowed to do “everything we can to make things right.”
But news of PG&E’s decision to use its victim trust funds to pay off its fine wasn’t received well by some of those who lost homes or loved ones in the blaze.
Attorney Robert Julian, who is representing thousands of the wildfire victims, said he intends to take up the matter of victim compensation in two upcoming hearings, one in a criminal court and the other in bankruptcy.
“You’re asking the heirs and the family members to pay your criminal activity,” he told HuffPost of PG&E’s decision to pick from the victims’ trust fund. “We’re going to be objecting to this in both courts.”
At a federal bankruptcy hearing on Wednesday, Julian asked that PG&E provide more reassurances about the money intended to compensate victims, particularly since half of it would be paid in the form of PG&E stock which has lost half of its value since February, according to The Associated Press.
By the time the company emerges from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, many wildfire victims worry that the PG&E stock provided as part of victim compensation won’t be worth its promised value, Julian told the judge.
Kirk Trostle, who lost his home in the Camp Fire, is among those expressing that fear. He was one of two committee members that resigned this week from an 11-member board representing victims of PG&E.
In a letter to Assistant U.S. Trustee Timothy S. Laffredi, Trostle called PG&E’s bankruptcy recognization plan “deeply flawed and very risky for all fire victims.”
“The plan does not guarantee fire victims the aggregate of $13.5 billion in cash and stock compensation,” Trostle said.
Tommy Wehe, whose mother was killed in the Camp Fire, also dismissed the company’s use of victim funds, calling it a greedy betrayal.
“They want me to pay for the fine for killing my mom,” he told KQED. “Their greed knows no end. We feel betrayed and we are emotionally and mentally broken by this case.”