California utility expects to pay $2.5 billion for wildfires

Updated 22 June 2018
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California utility expects to pay $2.5 billion for wildfires

  • The blazes killed 44 people, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses
  • The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has determined the cause of 14 fires and found the utility’s downed power lines started several

SAN FRANCISCO: A Northern California utility said Thursday it expects to pay at least $2.5 billion in connection with deadly wildfires that whipped through wine country last October — some of them ignited by its fallen power lines.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. also warned that its liability could be considerably higher after state fire officials determine the cause of 21 major fires that devastated the region last year.
The blazes killed 44 people, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, and wiped out vineyards, marijuana farms and other agricultural operations.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has determined the cause of 14 fires and found the utility’s downed power lines started several.
But state officials have not found what ignited California’s most destructive wildfire, which destroyed more than 5,000 buildings, including 2,800 homes in the town of Santa Rosa that was hardest hit by the deadly flames.
PG&E said it is facing more than 200 lawsuits and expects more. One of the law firms suing the utility has hired celebrity activist Erin Brockovich, whose legal fight against PG&E over water issues was portrayed in a 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts.
Prosecutors also are investigating whether PG&E should be charged with any crimes if it is found to have failed to follow state safety regulations.
A US judge fined the utility $3 million after it was convicted of six felony charges for failing to properly maintain a natural gas pipeline that exploded under a neighborhood south of San Francisco in 2010.
The explosion killed eight people and wiped out a neighborhood in suburban San Bruno. The California Public Utilities Commission also fined PG&E $1.6 billion.
The utility said in a filing Thursday with the Securities and Exchange Commission that the $2.5 billion charge tied to the wildfires will be recorded in the quarter ending June 30.
PG&E said the figure is at the low end of its estimated liability, which could exceed $10 billon. The utility said it has about $840 million in insurance for the fires.
PG&E President Geisha Williams said California law holds utilities almost completely responsible for wildfires started by their equipment even if they followed all safety rules.
She called the law “bad public policy” and called on lawmakers to change it to bring the state more in line with the rest of the country, which takes into account the utilities’ safety record.
Williams said extreme weather conditions contributed to the wildfires.
“Years of drought, extreme heat and 129 million dead trees have created a ‘new normal’ for our state that requires comprehensive new solutions,” Williams said.
Fire victims who lost their homes said they are frustrated with PG&E and its legal arguments seeking to minimize its financial liability.
“If somebody contributed or caused my loss, they should help me rebuild,” said Marc Selivanoff, whose Santa Rosa home was destroyed in the October fires. “If there’s anything PG&E can do, they should be doing it instead of trying to dodge the problem.”
Selivanoff is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits against the utility.
The San Francisco-based utility’s stock price on Thursday rose 97 cents a share, or 2.43 percent, to $40.97 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.


Macron’s security aide charged over assaults caught on video

Updated 22 July 2018
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Macron’s security aide charged over assaults caught on video

  • The incident is the most damaging scandal to hit Macron since he took office last year
  • An aide to Macron and an employee of the ruling party were caught on video assaulting May Day protesters

PARIS: A former top security aide for French President Emmanuel Macron was charged Sunday along with an employee of the ruling party after they were caught on video assaulting May Day protesters, footage that went viral on social media.
In the most damaging scandal to hit Macron since he took office last year, Alexandre Benalla and Vincent Crase were charged with “gang violence,” Paris prosecutors said.
Three high-ranking police officers, already suspended on suspicion they illegally gave Benalla video surveillance footage of the incidents to help him try to clear his name, were charged with misappropriation of the images and violating professional secrecy.
The president has yet to comment on the scandal, but his office said Benalla was punished in May with a two-week suspension from active duty.
Yet Benalla continued to appear in Macron’s security details.
The opposition accuses Macron, who came to power on pledges to restore transparency and integrity to the nation’s highest office in order to ensure a “republic of responsibility,” of covering up for Benalla.
Benalla, 26, was fired Friday after video footage emerged showing him hitting a man at least twice as riot police looked on while breaking up a May Day protest in Paris.
Benalla, who was wearing a police helmet with visor as well as a police armband, was additionally charged with impersonating a police officer, as well as complicity in the unauthorized use of surveillance footage.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb is to appear before parliament on Monday morning, with some MPs warning they will demand his resignation if he knew about the incident but kept quiet.
After publishing the first video of the incident last Wednesday, French daily Le Monde posted a second video showing Benalla violently wrestling a young woman to the ground during the scuffles on a square near the Rue Mouffetard, a picturesque Left Bank street.
Just days after the May 1 demonstrations, which were marred this year by anarchists who clashed with police, Macron had tweeted that “everything will be done so that those responsible will be identified and held accountable for their actions.”
In a third video, published by the Mediapart investigative news site, police officers are seen kicking and punching the young man even after he has been immobilized on the sidewalk.
The man and woman seen in the videos have come forward and plan to testify, a source close to the inquiry said.
The government has been forced to suspend debate on a constitutional reform bill after a revolt by lawmakers, who have announced investigations by both the National Assembly and Senate.
“If Macron doesn’t explain himself the Benalla affair will become the Macron affair,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen posted on Twitter.
“Why the devil did he insist on protecting a second-rank employee who should have been kicked out of the Elysee months ago?” rightwing daily Le Figaro asked in an editorial Sunday.
But ruling Republic on the Move (LREM) party spokesman Gabriel Attal defended the president’s silence.
If Macron speaks now, “we’d have indignant commentators everywhere saying his comments could influence the inquiry,” Attal said.
Adding to the controversy, Le Monde reported Friday that despite his suspension Benalla was allowed this month to move into a palatial mansion along the Seine reserved for Elysee workers.
He was also being provided with a car and chauffeur, the paper said.
Investigators have searched Benalla’s home in the Paris suburb of Issy-Les-Moulineaux, where a city hall official said Benalla was supposed to have married on Saturday.
The scandal could hardly have come at a worse time for Macron, whose approval ratings fell to a record low of 39 percent last week, defying analysts’ expectations of a post-World Cup bump.
“Macron defenseless,” the Journal du Dimanche said in a front-page headline on Sunday over a picture of the president and Benalla.