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ABC10 Investigation: PG&E knew old power line parts had ‘severe wear’ months before deadly Camp Fire

Evidence used to convict PG&E of the 2018 Camp Fire shows the company knew old parts needed replacing, but tried to show they could last longer.

Brandon Rittiman

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Published: 2:53 PM PST February 16, 2021
Updated: 6:50 PM PST February 17, 2021

Evidence used to convict PG&E of sparking the deadliest wildfire in California history showed the company knew months beforehand that it had a problem with worn-out metal parts, but still used questionable science to attempt to calculate how many more years the parts could be left hanging.

Seven months before the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, PG&E crews discovered “severe wear” on steel parts holding up a 72-year-old power line in the East Bay Area. 

An internal report from PG&E’s own materials lab neglected the risk of those parts cracking and concluded that they had as many as 28 years of “remaining life,” even though PG&E’s own maintenance policies said they did not. The lab report provides a window into what prosecutors call PG&E’s “run to failure” policy of delaying maintenance on power line parts until they break.

“It’s like running around with a loaded gun,” former state utilities commissioner Catherine Sandoval said after reviewing the report. “It can kill people.”

Credit: Source: US District Court / PG&E
PG&E filed photo in criminal court, showing the broken hook believed to have caused the 2018 Camp Fire, killing 85 people.

Much of the evidence shown to the Butte County Grand Jury that indicted PG&E has remained secret, but we do know the PG&E lab report was part of the evidence.   ABC10 obtained that report and spoke with numerous experts in law and utilities, including a former PG&E metallurgist who worked in the lab that created the report, about the report's results.

“What PG&E did was violent. Whether you beat someone to death or you cause them to die in a fire, you've caused a violent death,” Phillip Binstock said. His 87-year-old father Julian was found dead in his bathtub after the Camp Fire burned his retirement home. “The employees of PG&E knew. They knew. They ignored it. As a consequence people died.”

PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of manslaughter for sparking the 2018 Camp Fire and another felony for sparking the Camp Fire through its own criminal negligence. The electric company was already on probation for six federal felonies after the deadly San Bruno gas explosion, a case which also involved poor safety work and killed eight people in 2010.

The company has faced relatively few consequences for these crimes. In fact, PG&E has successfully lobbied the government to change laws and waive fines for its deadly safety violations as Gov. Gavin Newsom (along with most members of California's legislature and congressional delegation) continued to accept political donations from the company after it became a convicted felon.

PG&E is under yet another homicide investigation for the four deaths in the September 2020 Zogg Fire amid questions about whether the company properly inspected and cut trees that threatened power lines as required by law and its use of "junk science" that failed to identify its power line as needing to be shut off.

Though these deadly disasters differ in whether they involve gas pipelines, old metal parts, or unmanaged trees, Sandoval said they all have one thing in common: poor management of life-and-death information by PG&E.

“This is the world that PG&E created," Sandoval said. "The world that PG&E created reflects their criminal thinking and is criminally reckless,” Sandoval said. "And we get to live in fear in it."

NOTE: This investigation was produced by ABC10's FIRE - POWER - MONEY reporting project. If you have a tip that could help reveal more about California's crisis with utilities and wildfires, please contact investigative reporter Brandon Rittiman at brittiman@abc10.com.

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