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Victims Of 2018 Camp Fire Speak Out In Court Against PG&E

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As early as today, a Northern California judge could sentence Pacific Gas and Electric for its role in the 2018 Camp Fire. The fire destroyed much of the town of Paradise, and the company pleaded guilty this week to 84 counts of manslaughter. Now victims and their families have a chance to confront PG&E executives in court. Lily Jamali reports from KQED.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: On Wednesday, Skye Sedwick made her way to the front of a courtroom in Chico, Calif. With a photo of her father John behind her, she recounted how he stayed behind to protect his home and others from the Camp Fire. It ended up taking his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SKYE SEDWICK: I can't express here today how much he is missed by so many. He was a bit eccentric and certainly marched to the beat of his own drum. I hope and pray his legacy didn't entirely burn that day.

JAMALI: PG&E has admitted its aging equipment sparked the blaze. Sedwick blames the company's culture.

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SEDWICK: It is this culture of apathy, neglect and greed that has become synonymous with PG&E. And I wonder, what will it take for that to change? How many more have to die?

JAMALI: A Butte County grand jury investigation released this week lays out evidence of decades of misconduct by PG&E. It found the company falsified or didn't have key records and grew lax on maintenance inspections that might have caught the equipment problems that caused the Camp Fire. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey headed the probe.

MIKE RAMSEY: And they basically put profit above safety.

JAMALI: On Tuesday, PG&E's CEO Bill Johnson entered the company's pleas for causing the fire and all 84 manslaughter charges stemming from it. He emphasized the company is trying to harden its grid to prevent future catastrophic fires, and he apologized to victims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL JOHNSON: I wish there was some way to take back what happened or to take away the impact, the pain that these people have suffered, but I know that can't be done.

JAMALI: As part of a plea deal with prosecutors, PG&E has agreed to pay $4 million. No one is going to jail. That outcome is difficult to accept for many, particularly as the company prepares to emerge from bankruptcy protection. It filed for that just after the Camp Fire. Now there is the looming question of whether PG&E will leave Chapter 11 a safer company. UC Hastings law professor Jared Ellias has closely followed the case.

JARED ELLIAS: This bankruptcy proceeding was much more about dealing with the problems of the past than it was with dealing with the challenges that the company has to face in the future. Ultimately, you know, the set of risks that this company has to deal with of running power over dry, risky territory - that's still there.

JAMALI: The revamped PG&E will have a new board of directors, a new CEO but also a whole lot more debt than it started with. Camp Fire victim Philip Binstock told the court Wednesday he doubts PG&E, a monopoly, will ever change.

PHILIP BINSTOCK: Through my PG&E bills, I will be paying your bonuses, your fines, your shareholders' dividends and your settlements.

JAMALI: Binstock's father died in the fire. He remains angry. He'd hoped the criminal charges would bring justice for all those who suffered loss. But so far, he says he hasn't found it.

For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE WHO RIDE WITH GIANTS' "THE GUARDIANS OF THE DEEPNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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