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Activists Fool Media by Claiming Gas Company Would Pay California Fire Victims

Overwhelming evidence shows that gas and electric company PG&E is responsible for the fire that killed 86 people and cost an estimated $30 billion in damages.

Soldiers conduct search and debris clearing operations in Paradise, California after the November wildfire (all images by California National Guard/Flickr)

Yesterday, newspapers across the country received a shocking, if optimistic, press release from one of America’s most vilified companies. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), the gas and electric company thought responsible for November’s California Camp Fire that killed 86 people, destroyed over 18,000 structures, and cost an estimated $30 billion in damages announced that it would finally take some ownership over the crisis.

A welcome surprise for victims of the disaster, PG&E’s former president and chief operating officer Geisha Williams said that she would donate her $2.5 million severance package to relief efforts. “As PG&E moves into Chapter 11, my donation will help ensure that the people most affected by this tragedy will not have to wait to be compensated for their homes, land, and lost relatives,” Williams supposedly remarked. “It’s my responsibility to be accountable in aftermath of this major fire — and I will do everything in my power to take that responsibility.”

Outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle were quick to announce the good news to their readerships. Too bad it was all a lie — a clever digital protest devised by the Oakland-based group, Climate Justice Crew. (The site’s article on the story has since been taken down and replaced with this one.)

“Today, there were several social media posts about our former CEO that are simply not true,” PG&E spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said in a statement. “The posts were connected to a fake website that, despite appearances, is not affiliated in any way with PG&E.”

Climate Justice Crew responded with their own public statement yesterday evening via the group Rising Tide North America, saying:

We call for PG&E to take complete financial and ethical responsibility for all fires caused by its negligence. The stunt today was meant to draw attention to the spectacular miscarriage of justice that has transpired since the lethal Camp Fire — including the lack of transparency with regards to compensation for victims’ of this tragedy, the way in which PG&E has tried to dodge their debts by proposing a consumer bailout and filing for Chapter 11, and Mrs. Williams’ astronomical severance package.

Vanessa Tsimoyianis-Butterworth, a spokesperson for the three-member activist group told SF Chronicle that the group supports a public takeover of the company.  “PG&E needs to be dismantled, and there needs to be a democratic process that happens next,” she said. “Making it a true public utility is the way to go.”

Tsimoyianis-Butterworth tells Hyperallergic, “PG&E contributes to the systematic way in which the most marginalized communities are first and worst hit by the climate crisis every day, not just when wildfires happen.”

The activist explained in an email:

We wanted to flip the script and humanize PG&E’s woes [and] put a human face on who is accountable here […] Mrs. Geisha Williams and every other exec and investor should be ashamed of themselves — they’re murderers, have exponentially contributed to the climate crisis and bad air quality that hit marginalized groups daily first and worst. It’s remarkable that we continue to bail out CEOs and executives that make millions, even billions, off of the backs of people and face no real repercussions when they do wrong on such an enormous level.

Soldiers assessing damage after the November wildfire

Potential bankruptcy for the utility giant has worried those who hope to see PG&E reimburse fire victims. Erin Brokovich, the consumer activist who famously confronted the company in the 1990s, recently urged lawmakers to stop the business from filing Chapter 11 because it would preclude the company from paying. Last week, the company announced that it would declare bankruptcy because it cannot afford to pay nearly $30 billion in expected damages from deadly 2017 and 2018 Northern California wildfires.

Over the years, PG&E has been the subject of significant ire — so much so that the company has separate sections on its Wikipedia page for disasters and controversies. Past misdeeds include contaminating groundwater, San Bruno’s pipeline explosion, deceitful lobbying tactics, and tax dodging.

Climate Justice Crew’s hoax recalls the interventionist techniques of the art-activist collective, Yes Men, which often impersonates big-time criminals in order to humiliate them and hold them publicly accountable for misdeeds. Recently, the group successfully distributed thousands of fake Washington Post newspapers in the DC area. The issue’s cover story detailed how Trump had fled office thanks to a women-led action and how Pence was hopelessly “clipped” by a complete lack of charisma.

Yes Men co-founder Andy Bichlbaum (born Jacques Servin) tells Hyperallergic that he has no affiliation with the Climate Justice Crew, but applauds their work. “Incidentally,” he added, “PG&E was the first corporation I impersonated when I worked there as a temp in 1993 — I sent friends a notice on official PG&E stationary that they had to do all kinds of absurd things to their home. They fell for it.”

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