But the Public Utilities Commission so far is staying out of it, saying it doesn’t want to duplicate other efforts.

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.”

The format of a Public Utilities Commission investigatory docket would be far different than investigations currently underway. Burned stores reveal the ferocity of the Aug. 8 fire that stormed through Lahaina. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

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. 

“Certain evidence of a downed power line sparking dry grass in Lahaina indicates that Hawaiian Electric equipment may have been the cause,” U.S. Reps Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Jeff Duncan (R-SC) and H. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) wrote in an Aug. 30 letter announcing the investigation.

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.”

Rep Nicole Lowen during info forum on cesspools.
Hawaii Rep. Nicole Lowen, who chairs the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, received scant information when she inquired whether the commission planned to investigate the fires. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

In an interview, Lowen commended the commission’s intention to avoid duplicating efforts of other investigators.

“At the end of the day, the important thing is that it is investigated and the causes are determined,” she said.

But she said the PUC might be able to explore important policy issues beyond the scope of the other investigations.

“They might dive deeper into questions of infrastructure,” she said.

In addition, a PUC “investigatory docket” would likely be far more public than the current inquiries, which are being conducted confidentially.

PUC proceedings, by contrast, are quasi-judicial matters where parties submit public pleadings and testimony, and interested members of the public can weigh in. The proceedings can play out over weeks to months. The commission can subpoena witnesses and documents, under its statute

“The commission and each commissioner shall have the same powers respecting administering oaths, compelling the attendance of witnesses and the production of documentary evidence, examining witnesses, and punishing for contempt, as are possessed by circuit courts,” the statute says. Nobody can be excused from testifying.

A PUC investigation into the Lahaina fires would likely be the most closely watched proceeding since the commission considered the merger of Hawaiian Electric and NextEra Energy in 2014. The proposed deal involved a series of public meetings, thousands of pages of filings and evidentiary hearings before the commission rejected the deal.

Lowen said a PUC investigation into the Maui fires could be similar.

“I think it would follow a similar pattern, but I’m not sure,” she said.

Marco Mangelsdorf, a longtime solar energy advocate and utility analyst on the Big Island, was more outspoken on the issue of the PUC stepping in. Mangelsdorf noted the PUC will have no choice but to investigate if Hawaiian Electric is found to have caused the fire.

He said the PUC’s silence is troubling.

“Why hasn’t Leo Asuncion said anything,” Mangelsdorf said, referring to the PUC chairman.

It’s important, he said, for the public to know what the commission could do that other investigators are not doing.

While silent about its own investigation, the PUC has not been totally silent regarding the Lahaina fire. On Aug. 31 the commission issued an order related to the wildfires in which it gave the utility 30 days to submit a short accident report on the fire, including its financial condition.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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