How a PG&E contractor with a sketchy past made millions after deadly Camp Fire

How a PG&E contractor with a sketchy past made millions after deadly Camp Fire

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PG&E pleads guilty to 84 deaths in 2018 California wildfire (copy) (copy)

This Dec. 3, 2018, file photo, shows homes leveled by the Camp Fire line at the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park retirement community in Paradise, Calif. 

A PG&E contractor accused of bribery and fraud during the Camp Fire cleanup had a history of illicit dumping, conflict with regulators and employed a senior manager connected to environmental crimes, according to a new investigation by the Bay City News Foundation and ProPublica.

The investigation was co-published on Tuesday by ProPublica and the Bay City News Foundation.

In February, PG&E CEO William Johnson publicly accused Hayward-based Bay Area Concrete Recycling of defrauding the utility and bribing PG&E employees. Bay Area Concrete’s contract with PG&E was terminated, and the company is under criminal investigation.

Corporate records unearthed by the news organizations reveal new details about the alleged schemes.

They show that while the 2018 fire still burned in Paradise, an attorney for Bay Area Concrete’s owners registered a limited liability company at the business address of another one of the owners’ companies.

Ownership of that new company was later transferred to a PG&E employee who oversaw Bay Area Concrete’s work in Paradise. The employee, Ryan Kooistra, lost his job as PG&E went public with the allegations, according to industry insiders. Kooistra did not respond to attempts to contact him by phone, mail or social media.

Kooistra resigned and his supervisor, superintendent of gas transmission and distribution Ron Huggins, also no longer works at PG&E, according to the news organizations’ investigation. Huggins did not respond to written questions mailed to his home in Auburn.

Kooistra sold his home in California in February and returned to Arizona, where he founded a pool cleaning business in May.

Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey confirmed that PG&E contacted his office regarding the allegations and said he is waiting for further information from the utility.

Bay Area Concrete is part of a sprawling network of hauling, recycling and construction companies owned by Bay Area couple Preet Johal and Yadwinder “Kevin” Singh. In 16 years, the pair’s business empire has grown from a single trucking firm to more than a dozen companies operating in 11 cities throughout the West Coast. The couple did not respond to requests for comment via mail, phone, email and social media.

In 2014, the company was connected to an illegal dumping operation on federally protected wetlands in Newark. The site was shut down by police and its operator, James Lucero, was convicted of violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Bay Area Concrete hired a manager of that site, Kevin Olivero, to be its CEO.

The company has had its headquarters in Hayward since 2012, where it operated an unpermitted concrete recycling plant from 2013 until it was shut down last year after years of fighting with the city. Hayward levied nearly $60,000 in fines over that period.

Bay Area Concrete appealed to continue operating, but it was unanimously rejected by the Hayward Planning Commission late in 2018.

“At the end of the day, this is really an illegal business that’s asking to continue operating,” Commissioner Gary Patton said at the meeting, “and it’s been illegal since 2013.”

In an interview, Bay Area Concrete operations manager Chris Packal argued that there were legitimate differences in opinion over what zoning allowed for the site in Hayward.

“It was definitely a battle with the city the whole time,” Packal said.

Despite that, PG&E then contracted with Bay Area Concrete to play a key role in the cleanup after the Camp Fire. Bay Area Concrete, operating under the name Slurry Waste Solutions, built a specialized disposal facility in Paradise.

The facility processed the slurry waste from hydrovac trucks, special excavation equipment that uses pressurized water to dig around delicate equipment like buried gas lines or cables.

Bay Area Concrete has denied the allegations of fraud and bribery in Paradise. In a letter to PG&E posted to the company’s website, Olivero accused PG&E of falsifying accusations to avoid paying bills as the utility still owes the company a substantial sum.

“It is unfortunate that you decided to terminate our contract without first consulting us or making sure that your purported grounds had merit,” he wrote. “This is in addition to avoiding the significant negative environmental impacts that trucking and processing these materials elsewhere in the state would have caused.”

PG&E bankruptcy filings from March 2019 showed that the utility owed Bay Area Concrete nearly $4 million. Olivero wrote that PG&E owed the company more than $14 million.

In response to a long list of questions, PG&E provided a brief statement that did not directly address how warning signs like the company owners’ long conflict with the city of Hayward and participation in an illegal dumping operation were overlooked.

“PG&E has initiated an internal review to determine why this wasn’t detected earlier, and we will be enhancing our protocols to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” a PG&E spokesperson wrote.

The full investigation is available at ProPublica.org.

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