HONOLULU (KHON2) — What did HECO know, and when did they know it, about the fire risk on Maui and the dangerous fire conditions forecast for Aug. 8? Those are among questions from Congress as their investigation doubles down.
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Nearly a month ago, HECO and others were grilled in Washington, D.C., by a congressional panel digging into the utility’s potential role in the Lahaina wildfire, and prevention tactics going forward. Lawmakers warned them more questions would come, and now those are in.
Three people were on the hot seat in the nation’s capital last month before the Oversight and Investigations panel of the U.S. House Energy & Commerce Committee. Lawmakers volleyed hours of questions at the heads of Hawaiian Electric, the Public Utilities Commission and the Hawaii State Energy Office.
Initial reaction was that more questions than answers arose, and the committee told the Hawaii panel to stay tuned for a second round. The follow-up questions are now disclosed.
“I think just overall they were frustrated with the vague answers that were provided,” said Bridget Morgan-Bickerton, an attorney for some of the many survivors suing HECO in civil court, many of whom came to Washington to look on and submit their own testimony in writing. “But they are comforted and very grateful that there are follow up questions being asked of HECO and these other agencies.”
Across 4 pages single-spaced, there are more than 3 dozen questions and subtopics for HECO to address in the areas of red-flag weather forecasts, how it deals with brush and branches near electric lines, HECO’s evolving wildfire mitigation plan, and why the company has no pre-emptive power shutoff trigger.
“I think HECO is going to have a hard time providing real answers to these questions, because they’re specific,” Bickerton said. “When you start asking them, ‘Show us the documents, tell us exactly where you are in terms of the work that you say you commenced on your mitigation plan,’ when specific questions are asked, specific answers need to be provided.”
Meanwhile state lawmakers are keeping their eyes on what comes of this and other investigations.
“A dozen bills were passed in the aftermath of the California wildfires in 2019,” explained Sen. Glenn Wakai, vice chair of the state Senate Committee on Energy, Economic Development and Tourism & Commerce. “I intend to introduce a few next year, including a Hawaii Wild Fire Fund, to pay for future claims and capitalized by utility companies.”
The PUC’s homework from the Congressional panel is shorter than HECO’s, but no less pointed, with just a handful of questions geared toward what teeth they have and why it takes so long on regular and investigative dockets.
“These are all public safety issues,” Bickerton said. “How are people going to trust their government and their local agencies, if they can’t cut to the chase in a way that’s going to keep the public safe?”
Rep. Nicole Lowen, chair of the state House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection told KHON2 she’s looking at legislation to make sure utility wildfire mitigation plans stay updated, adding, “The PUC can do this already but putting it in law will help to ensure it is happening, to be specific about what needs to be addressed in those plans, and to provide more transparency.”
KHON2 asked both HECO and the PUC if they’ve responded to anything yet or what their process is for getting back to the congressmembers by the deadline at the end of this week. They have not yet answered back.