News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

October 10, 2019

PG&E’s greatest hits: Decades of putting profit over people

By Nick Lyell

On Oct. 9 and 10, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) shut off power for hundreds of thousands people in the Bay Area. The company’s stated reason for doing so was high winds, which could damage power lines and start yet another wildfire.

In fact, PG&E could have avoided the danger of wildfire entirely if they had invested in infrastructure upgrades to make the power system resistant to high winds. Instead, PG&E has chosen to prioritize the needs of its investors over human safety.

But this trade-off is nothing new for them: PG&E has decades of experience in cost-cutting negligence causing deaths, damage, and outages, and burning tens of thousands of acres of forest. 

PG&E has made an art out of criminality with their negligent behavior. Here are some of their greatest hits.

Hinkley Groundwater Contamination (1987)

This early crime has already inspired a book and movie adaptation: “Erin Brockovich.” PG&E contaminated water in the small town of Hinkley from 1952 to 1966 with toxic chromium-6 from a leaking natural gas compressor. PG&E did not report the contamination to the local water board until they were forced to years later. Whoopsies.

Tree-cutting violations (1994–present)

Like Picasso in his Blue Period, PG&E has been building on the same theme for decades now. PG&E received its first fines for not properly cutting trees near power lines, a major cause of wildfires, in 1994 (if not earlier). In 1994, PG&E was convicted of 739 counts of criminal negligence for causing the Trauner fire that burned down a dozen homes and a school.

The current power shutoffs are PG&E’s attempt to prevent wildfires from their power lines near trees. It would be more effective to just properly trim their trees or bury the lines, but that would reduce their shareholders’ profits. Who said art wasn’t risky?

Pendola Fire (1999)

PG&E burned down a massive 12,000 acres of the pristine and beautiful Tahoe and Plumas National Forests. It was better business for their profits to burn it all down and pay the nearly $15 million fine than to spend that money on the vegetation management and inspection programs that would have prevented the fires.

Chapter 11 Bankruptcy (2001)

This is a throwback so good that PG&E has a 2019 remix out. Governor Jerry Brown signed a new law allowing PG&E to raise rates even further in order to cover their $9 billion debt. Ratepayers didn’t get better service, safer lines, or green energy investments for their help. Instead they got another two decades of PG&E’s greatest hits.

Substation Fire (2003)

This sleeper hit, set in picturesque San Francisco, was anticipated by 1996’s smaller Mission Substation Fire. Mission Substation Fire Part I might have taught PG&E important lessons, but it didn’t. So in 2003, the same problem caused a power outage for 100,000 people across SF. Will they make it a franchise?

Rancho Cordova Gas Explosion (2008)

PG&E even has a Christmas hit. PG&E was found to have installed an incorrect pipe during a 2006 repair, which resulted in this 2008 explosion that killed one person and injured five others on Christmas Eve. They paid $38 million in fines.

San Francisco Electrical Explosion (2009)

A retrospective on previous eras. PG&E’s power line, which hadn’t been replaced since the 1920s, created an underground fire and electrical explosion, causing a power outage for 8,000 people.

San Bruno pipeline explosion (2010)

This album has an A side and an equally negligent B side. PG&E killed eight people, injured 58, and destroyed 28 homes by knowingly violating the law requiring inspection of gas pipelines. Then they lied about it in their internal records and obstructed justice by concealing evidence. They are still on probation until 2022 — seriously.

The explosion and fire in September 2010 killed eight people, injured 58, and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno’s Crestmoor neighborhood. The cause was a defective seam weld in a pipeline that PG&E records had listed as seamless.

A jury convicted PG&E of flouting federal requirements for monitoring and testing its aging gas pipelines. Testimony from current and former employees confirmed that PG&E knowingly used low-cost inspection methods that could not detect internal flaws in the lines. The jury also convicted the company of obstructing a federal investigation into the San Bruno explosion by concealing its practice of pumping gas through the lines at pressures above legal limits.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson found their repeated history of negligence on pipeline safety so egregious that, after finding them guilty of six felony convictions, he recommended that “Advertising touting PG&E’s commitment to safety must include the criminal convictions, that it was found liable for knowingly and willfully violating” safety laws.

Butte Fire (2015)

PG&E gets more ambitiously negligent every year. This fire burned an incredible 70,000 acres, destroyed 365 homes, and killed two people. PG&E was found to be at fault and was fined only $8 million. Criminally undervalued, you might say. 

Camp Fire (2018)

PG&E really pushed the boundaries of the genre (and the limits of taste on this extended metaphor) with this one. Cal Fire found that PG&E lines caused the Camp Fire, the most deadly and destructive fire in California’s history. This fire destroyed most of the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.

What’s Next?

Tired of the same old song from PG&E? I am. This isn’t really that funny, like re-listening to that problematic fave from your angsty teen years: you wish you could laugh, but mostly it’s an angry lump of discomfort in the stomach. The good news is that we can all turn this garbage off and change the track.

The only way we can end these harmful power shut offs and win better safety, lower rates, and the Green New Deal–level investments that are required for us to build a better world is to demand energy democracy. If the people of California are going to bail PG&E out, the people of California should own their utility. Sign up to join the movement at