I was physically sitting in a cold, whitewashed bunker on PG&E’s San Ramon campus, but my mind was not there. I was 188 miles away, three years ago, almost to the day. I stood once again in the white and damp ashes of paradise, just a month after a PG&E transmission line started the camp fire, and death roared through the small town on the mountain.
I walked through the still steaming streets, sticky with debris. I listened to the hundreds of desperate 911 phone calls from PG&E clients who were burning to death inside their homes. I was choking on the dusty orange smoke that has choked California almost every summer since and before.
I had been invited to meet the new CEO of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Patti Poppe, and learn more about what the company is doing to mitigate the state’s catastrophic wildfires – many of which have started. due to routine business neglect basic infrastructure. The invitation came after a Sacramento Bee editorial called on the state to launch a public takeover. That wasn’t nice to the infamous utility, and I should know that because I wrote it.
In San Ramon, I perched on a high stool which was uncomfortable like only wholesale chairs can be. Across the table, Poppe’s eyes fixed seriously on mine. His words were sincere and his manner was confident and kind. My eyes rolled back to Poppe’s and I wondered if they reflected my anger. My thoughts were full of emotion, so I listened. If not, I might have started talking. And if I started talking, maybe I started to cry.
âI would love to start planting seeds to help you see the business evolve,â she told me. âWe have a whole new management team. I was thrilled by the people who joined me, people from the best of the best utilities across the country – people who are committed to doing things right and making it safe.
Across the room, several large monitors buzzed from their stands on a large wall in the “Risk Awareness Warning Center.” I couldn’t see the numbers clearly, but I was assured that the long bars and colored cards represent wildfire mitigation and safety for 5.2 million customers in Northern California. The PG&E communication team had clearly chosen to meet here for appearances.
âWe know how important it is for Californians to have confidence in their hometown, and that is who we are,â she said.
I searched for what was visible of his face behind a cloth mask in a futile attempt to find a deeper meaning. Did she know what it’s like to watch your house burn down? To hear the terror of your neighbors and to see their shock unfold? See the death toll in a city rise higher and higher and watch white crosses fill black hills in memory? So I asked.
âDid you walk through any of the burn sites? “
“Were you able to see the destroyed neighborhoods? “
“Have you had the opportunity to listen to any of the 911 calls? ”
Poppe paused for a moment.
âYou know, this is all heartbreaking. And that’s why we get up every day. That’s why I came, âshe said. “I saw from afar that Californians and the people at PG&E needed an experienced and capable leader.”
My hands started to shake. I wasn’t sure if it was anger or adrenaline, so I put them on the table, hoping no one noticed.
Poppe came here last year from CMS Energy, a Michigan-based utility company. She brought with her a “Lightweight operating system”, as breathless told me, time and time again, by his team. This system, which consists of regular meetings throughout the company – some 1,400 meetings a day – is supposed to streamline issues to the top. At that day’s meeting, someone announced to the assembled employees that there was no fire to report for the month of November and the hall erupted into polite applause. It was surreal.
Poppe said she sincerely believes she can help turn this business around. That his new problem reporting systems and his past experience as CEO of utilities can make a difference day in and day out for this disaster prone business. And I believe she believes it.
But it is too little and much too late. Because I can’t help but think about the forest fires to come. The sparks that haven’t yet caught. The houses and the lives that are doomed to be destroyed. Poppe can look me in the eye and make me believe she’s trying to make changes, but you don’t get an A for effort in this game. And I’m tired of PG&E promises.
This company no longer deserves any chance of being wrong. Their work today – or tomorrow – will go up in smoke the second the next line sparks, or the next gas line bursts, or the next cable breaks. And it will be. Because California’s largest private utility company is too big to handle.
After the meeting, I stepped out into the bright sunshine of an immaculate yard. The famous Bay Area fog had lifted and it was truly a beautiful day. I let the hot sun fill the lingering holes in my heart and realized there was simply nothing that Poppe or the PG&E team could ever say that would convince me to give this one another chance. business. And there’s nothing I could have said to show how little their victims care about their latest promises. They are too big to change, and we are too small to force them.
At the end of our meeting, Poppe held out her hand in farewell, and I took it, a case of ingrained ways outweighing anger. I wished him luck with his goals, but what I really want is this rusty, decrepit hydra cut into such small pieces that it can never hurt anyone again.
There is no sum of money or promises that Poppe or PG&E could ever make to right the wrongs of the past. There is nothing they can do to bring back the people who have died because of their greed and the inability to maintain their equipment. No number of promises can stop the endless chain of mega fires and billions in compensation transmitted each year to its customers.
The only answer is to end this constant and tiresome California masquerade by donating to PG&E chance after chance after chance. Poppe alone may not deserve the seething anger I have harbored for three long years. But his company does not deserve our trust or our forgiveness.
We’re just going to get burnt again.
This story was originally published December 10, 2021 5:00 a.m.