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PG&E will pay $55 million in penalties and costs over 2 wildfires

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

California's largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, will avoid criminal prosecution for causing major wildfires. From member station KQED, Alex Emslie reports the company reached settlements with half a dozen prosecutors.

ALEX EMSLIE, BYLINE: The settlements cover two fires, one from 2019 in Sonoma County and one from last year that burned through five other counties in Northern California. Over the last decade, the utility's electrical lines have repeatedly sparked fires that killed over 100 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and other buildings. It faced criminal charges in Sonoma County after the 2019 Kincade Fire destroyed hundreds of homes, injured firefighters and prompted massive evacuations.

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JILL RAVITCH: There are those who will say that PG&E bought its way out of a criminal prosecution.

EMSLIE: Sonoma County DA Jill Ravitch brought those charges and dismissed them Monday in favor of a civil settlement.

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RAVITCH: I look at it as doing the best that we could under the circumstances. I'm just the prosecutor in Sonoma County. If I had a magic wand and I could wave it, maybe PG&E wouldn't exist anymore.

EMSLIE: Prosecutors in five other Northern California counties hit by the Dixie Fire last year also said their hands were tied by weak criminal laws when it comes to prosecuting corporations like PG&E. Butte County DA Mike Ramsey says the civil settlements will lead to faster payments to people whose homes were destroyed.

MIKE RAMSEY: Law's wonderful, but sometimes it really, really is slow. And we needed the settlement. We needed reparations for those folks up in the hills that lost everything.

EMSLIE: In addition to a slew of payments expected to be in the hundreds of millions, Ramsey says the settlements also require ongoing court oversight of PG&E. The utility has admitted no wrongdoing. In response to an interview request, PG&E sent a written statement saying it welcomes a new level of transparency and accountability. For NPR News, I'm Alex Emslie in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.