HONOLULU (KHON2) — As the return to Lahaina continues, there’s a Congressional hearing taking place this week in Washington, D.C. KHON2 News is there on Capitol Hill to track the proceedings and the outcome.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s investigation panel is seeking to understand whether electric infrastructure played a role in the Aug. 8 wildfire. It’s set to take place Thursday, Sept. 28, at 10 a.m. Eastern time, which is 4 a.m. Hawaii time.
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As all eyes are on Congress to iron out spending disputes before a likely federal shutdown at week’s end, Maui nonetheless is under the microscope at the upcoming hearing. The House panel summoned the top officials from Hawaiian Electric along with the Public Utilities Commission and the Hawaii State Energy Office to testify about the tragedy.
KHON2 wanted to know what the House committee investigating Maui hopes will come of this, so we went right to its co-chairman to find out.
“I’m going to ask about de-energizing the lines, which means turn it off the power,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia, one of the committee chairmen. “Why that wasn’t done sooner, why it wasn’t maintained until the threat was gone, when you have a clear threat? The National Weather Service was telling you a couple of days in advance that there was a significant threat to the area. Why aren’t you taking the actions necessary?”
KHON2 talked one-on-one with HECO’s spokesperson about how its President and CEO Shelee Kimura has prepared to be on the hot seat.
“There’s not going to be a big reveal by Shelee tomorrow,” said HECO spokesman Jim Kelly. “I don’t know that anyone’s going to be hearing new information about Aug. 8, but I’m sure there will be additional details about what we’re working on and potentially what could be looked at in the future in terms of some of these extreme weather situations and how we’re addressing those.”
So far HECO has acknowledged its downed power lines appear to have caused a morning blaze but the cause of the deadly afternoon flareup has not been determined. The head of HECO’s worker union is at the Capitol to monitor the hearing too, this as the power company is battered by mounting lawsuits and facing a long and costly rebuild
“Remember the people, the people behind the company. People’s lives are impacted. On Maui, of course, the people that went through it, but also the aftermath in how it affects jobs and how it affects our future. With anticipated increased attention towards hardening the grid, improving its resiliency and increasing public safety and confidence, it’s imperative that we maintain and develop our labor capacity and a local workforce of qualified and trained electrical utility workers.”Leroy Chincio of IBEW Local 1260
KHON2 wanted to know what are the potential ramifications of a Congressional investigation, especially with billions in federal recovery funding needed in parallel with accountability.
“I view these on separate tracks,” explained Sen. Brian Schatz. “There appears to continue to be bipartisan support for disaster aid for Maui. Figuring out what happened and what different institutions in Hawaii can do to make sure it never happens again, accountability is an important step forward.”
All this comes as a government shutdown looms at week’s end, with the House unable to resolve spending bills. Meanwhile, a bipartisan Senate continuing resolution is advancing but is still at the mercy of holdout House Republicans.
“There are too many of them right now who want a government shutdown and all the pain that that will cause,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono.
As for the other officials set to testify at tomorrow’s hearing, here’s a preview of excerpts from their opening statements, before the panel launches into questions:
Mark Glick, the state’s chief energy officer, said his office “expects that the results of investigations will be helpful in informing additional measures and recommendations for limiting future wildfires and their ill effects.”
Leo Asunción, chair of the Public Utilities Commission, said, “We are working with the utilities to take immediate actions (on) changes to protocols on Red Flag Warning days and whether power lines should be built below ground.”
After HECO, the PUC and energy office testimony, both of Hawaii’s House members will also face the panel to give their perspectives. Here’s what each told KHON2 ahead of their appearances tomorrow:
“I hope it’s just legitimate questions and assurance that federal programs are being carried out as they should be carried out. That’s a legitimate thing for us to ask for,” said Rep Ed Case. “Clearly, if my colleagues want to really help the people of West Maui right now, the best thing for them to do is to keep our government open.”
“I think it really is about emphasizing to our colleagues here just the scale and magnitude of what happened here, not just in terms of numbers, not just in terms of any technical responses or regulations, but really the human impact that this has had on our community,” said Rep. Jill Tokuda.
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KHON2 will livestream the hearing starting at 4 a.m. HST on Thursday.