Hawaii utility regulators are required by law to investigate deadly accidents involving a utility. But, more than a month after wildfires destroyed much of Lahaina, killing at least 115 people, the state Public Utilities Commission hasn’t said how or when it will proceed with its own investigation.
But the PUC insisted on Monday it is not sidestepping its responsibility.
“We are not waiving our authority to open a formal investigatory docket,” said David Richmond, a PUC spokesman.
For now, Richmond said, the commission is playing a supporting role in other inquiries, including those underway by the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office, the Maui Fire Department, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The PUC, Richmond said, doesn’t “want to duplicate efforts.”
Hawaii law requires regulated utilities to report “all accidents caused by or occurring in connection with its operations and service.” The law also says the “commission shall investigate the causes of any accident which results in loss of life” and authorizes the commission to “investigate any other accidents which in its opinion require investigation.”
In this case, the cause of the fire remains in dispute. Numerous lawsuits have attributed the lethal Lahaina blaze to downed Hawaiian Electric Co. power lines, which allegedly ignited dry vegetation and spread quickly, fanned by hurricane force winds. The congressional committee also pointed to Hawaiian Electric.
If it’s true Hawaiian Electric started the deadly fire, then the PUC is required to investigate under the law. Hawaiian Electric, meanwhile, has challenged the assertion that the company was responsible for the devastating Lahaina fires. But even if it’s not proven that Hawaiian Electric was responsible for the deaths, the PUC still could investigate.
The PUC is being so tight-lipped about its investigation that it would not share much with Hawaii Rep. Nicole Lowen, who is chair of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee and one of the state’s most influential policymakers on Hawaii energy issues. In August, Lowen wrote the PUC asking whether the commission would conduct its own investigation. The answer: the commission was supporting the ongoing inquiries and didn’t want to duplicate efforts.
“The Commission will be continuously evaluating next steps as the results of this investigation are shared with the Commission and the public,” the agency wrote in an Aug. 23 email signed “The PUC.”
Full Story: CivilBeat September 12, 2023