HONOLULU (KHON2) — Dissatisfied. That’s the initial reaction from several lawmakers and survivors after a Congressional hearing on the Maui fires in the nation’s capital on Thursday.
The stated objective of the hearing was to learn more about what if any role electric infrastructure had in the Aug. 8 blaze and how to prevent a repeat. But the hearing led to more questions than new answers, after hours of testimony.
The heads of Hawaiian Electric, the Public Utilities Commission and the Hawaii State Energy Office were sworn in to testify under oath before a House Committee on Energy and Commerce investigative panel. At times the dialog was tense, and the congressmembers voiced their dismay about it.
When questioned about power remaining on at dawn on a forecasted Red Flag Warning day Aug. 8, HECO President and CEO Shelee Kimura answered:
“When you’re asking why didn’t we shut off the power, that is not our protocol to do that. We…” said Kimura before panel chairman Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia interjected.
“Alright let’s stop right there,” said Griffith. “Going forward are you reexamining that, are you looking at that in the power public power safety shutoff programs, are you looking at that now, and are you rexamining your protocols because they didn’t work?”
Kimura responded, “We are absolutely reexamining our protocols.”
A congress member asked if HECO is committed to making internal investigation results public once complete.
“Is there any reason why you won’t make it public,” asked Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey. “I mean you seem to be hesitating a little bit.”
“I think it’s just too early to speculate on what that is going to look like in the future,” Kimura said. “We’re very focused on finding out what happened there to make sure that it never happens again.”
Always Investigating pressed HECO afterward on this, asking HECO, “Why not release the whole thing once you have it?”
“I think it’s still too early to even know what that form of that investigation is going to take,” HECO spokesperson Jim Kelly said.
KHON2 News asked, “Will you release the full results, regardless of what form it’s in?”
“I think it is going to have to turn out what it looks like when it comes out, whether that’s a written report or whether it’s something that’s fed into the other investigations that are going on,” Kelly said.
Plaintiff attorneys taking on HECO and other defendants told KHON2 they aim to get the full reports, too.
“We can seek those reports through discovery and through appropriate legal channels,” said Anne Andrews, attorney at Andrews & Thornton law firm.
So what about the PUC’s role in regulation and enforcement?
When asked what penalties, fines and other enforcement tools the PUC can use to keep a noncompliant utility in check, PUC Chairman Leo Asuncion told Congress, “There are a number of ways that we could make sure that the utility is held accountable, and it includes everything from conditions all the way up to penalties, we use our process…”
Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama interjected Asuncion stating, “Mr. Chairman I’m not satisfied with the answers.”
Always Investigating pressed the PUC afterward on this, and also when they’ll be investigating.
KHON2 asked: “What more can you do to satisfy their answers, but also your enforcement authority?”
“We came here to try to explain our role at the commission,” Asuncion said. “We still reserve the right [to launch a PUC investigation]. We want to make sure we get all the information from the ongoing investigations with the attorney general, the fire department, as well we’re hearing from the military that they have theirs as well. And that does not waive in any way our ability to investigate further. To make this clear, our investigative authority is to look at the operations of the utility. It’s not to find the cause.”
Survivors who came from Lahaina to Washington are demanding more answers and action, like the Pekelo-Eberle family that survived not just August’s blaze, but narrowly evacuated 2018 fire, too.
“It’s really annoying to hear, honestly, that they are trying to come off like there weren’t warning signs, that they didn’t already know, that going forward from now they’re going to do better,” Andrea Penelope said. “We lost homes in 2018 and it took our entire town burning down for them to say, okay, well, now we’re going to do better. It’s ridiculous.”
At least one member acknowledged the lack of specifics offered today could be in part due to yet-unknowns from ongoing investigations that could go on a year or more.
“I do think it would have been helpful to have the benefit of the on-the-ground findings from the authorities before pulling the attention of our witnesses away from recovery efforts to appear before us,” said Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida.
Looming over Washington all week was the specter of a federal shutdown with the House unable to agree on spending bills.
“A reckless government shutdown, or shutdown I should say which we know is imminent, would slow Maui’s ability to rebuild and recover,” Pallone said.
Spending limits are also on the minds of local officials when it comes to major preventive actions that come with price tags in the billions, like underground utility lines.
“At the end of the day are we impacting the ratepayer greatly just for that island,” Asuncion explained to a lawmaker asking about burying power lines. “We don’t have subsidizing of another island grid.”
“I get it but sometimes the cost of doing nothing turns out to be prohibitive also,” said Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas.
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This isn’t the end of the congressional inquiry. Members are sending more questions in 10 business days, and the panel will have 10 business days after that to answer. KHON2 News will continue to follow up.