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Maui Government Accuses Hawaii Electric Company of Causing Wildfires

Maui Government Accuses Hawaii Electric Company of Causing Wildfires
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Maui County filed a lawsuit Thursday against Hawaiian Electric Company and its subsidiaries, alleging that the utility company’s negligence caused the devastating wildfires that burned thousands of acres of land in the state and killed more than 100 people earlier this month.

Maui County has filed a lawsuit Thursday against Hawaiian Electric Company.

Video Source: Advocate Channel

(CNN) — Maui County filed a lawsuit Thursday against Hawaiian Electric Company and its subsidiaries, alleging that the utility company’s negligence caused the devastating wildfires that burned thousands of acres of land in the state and killed more than 100 people earlier this month.

The lawsuit alleges that the electric company, known as HECO, “inexcusably kept their power lines energized” in early August, despite the fact that the National Weather Service issued a High Wind Watch and a Fire Warning. The warnings cautioned that strong winds could knock down power lines and ignite a fire that would spread quickly due to dry conditions, the lawsuit indicated.

“The fire was a direct and legal result of the negligence, carelessness, and recklessness, and/or unlawfulness” of HECO, the lawsuit states.

Maui County is seeking damages from HECO that may total tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, according to John Fiske, an attorney representing the county in the lawsuit.

“Our primary focus in the wake of this unimaginable tragedy has been to do everything we can to support not just the people of Maui, but also Maui County. We are very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding,” a spokesperson from Hawaiian Electric told CNN in a statement.

This is the first time an entity of the Hawaiian government has formally accused the utility company of playing a role in the deadliest US fire in more than a century.

HECO is also the subject of a proposed class-action lawsuit filed earlier this month that accused the electric company of choosing not to “deenergize their power lines after they knew some poles and lines had fallen and were in contact with the vegetation or the ground.”

Jim Kelly, Hawaiian Electric’s vice president, told CNN that Hawaiian Electric does not have a formal shut-off program in place, and precautionary shut-offs have to be arranged with first responders. “Electricity powers the pumps that provide the water needed for firefighting,” he said.

Hawaiian Electric Company is a for-profit company that serves 95 percent of Hawaii’s customer base and trades on the New York Stock Exchange.

This isn’t the first time a utility company has been blamed for its alleged role in a powerful wildfire in recent years. In California, Pacific Gas and Electric has reached settlements valued at $25.5 billion, including $1 billion in settlements with cities and counties and $11 billion in settlements with insurance companies, after the company pleaded guilty for its role in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire.

The Hawaiian wildfires, which began on August 8, burned over 2,000 acres in Lahaina, and hundreds of acres in Kula and Olinda on the island of Maui.

The resulting destruction of homes, businesses, infrastructureand loss of tourismmay result in up to $6 billion in economic losses, according to an estimate from Moody’s RMS.

Fiske told CNN that the community would need to partner with the government in order to recover from the fire’s devastation.

“The expectations here are going to be looking forward towards recovery and rebuilding,” he said.

As Hawaiian Electric Company faces lawsuits over its alleged role in contributing to the devastating wildfires that swept through Maui this month, the utility also is being accused of compromising evidence in the fire investigation by moving damaged equipment before federal investigators could examine it, The Washington Post reported.

As it worked to restore power to the island, Hawaiian Electric moved fallen power poles, power lines, transformers, conductors and other equipment from near a Lahaina substation beginning around August 12, before agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) arrived on scene, the Post reported, citing court documents, letters and other records it obtained.

“Those actions may have violated national guidelines on how utilities should handle and preserve evidence after a wildfire and deprives investigators the opportunity to view any poles or downed lines in an undisturbed condition before or after the fire started,” the Post report said.

CNN has not independently confirmed the details reported by the Post.

Hawaiian Electric has been “in regular communication with ATF and local authorities and are cooperating to provide them, as well as attorneys representing people affected by the wildfires, with inventories and access to the removed equipment, which we have carefully photographed, documented and stored,” spokesman Darren Pai told the Post.

The ATF’s National Response Team was deployed to Hawaii to help determine the cause and origin of the deadly August 8 fire, the bureau said in an August 17 news release.

But before that team arrived, crews had cleared much of the site near the substation off Lahainaluna Road and moved damaged equipment to a warehouse, the Post said.

Starting August 10, two days after fire ripped through Lahaina, a law firm representing two dozen families asked Hawaiian Electric twice to preserve evidence, the newspaper reported, citing correspondence it obtained.

An attorney for the utility replied the following day saying its main focus was the safety of first responders and displaced residents and restoring power, the Post reported.

The company also noted it was taking steps to preserve property, but local, state and federal agencies were on the ground and it was possible “that the actions of these third parties, whose actions Hawaiian Electric does not control, may result in the loss of property or other items that relate to the cause of the fire,” the Post report said.

The families’ attorneys then submitted a temporary restraining order to stop Hawaiian Electric from altering the scene where it’s believed the Lahaina fire started, court documents show. A judge signed an interim discovery order on August 18, detailing how the company should handle evidence around the scene, the paper reported.

About 400 of Hawaiian Electric’s 750 power poles were damaged or destroyed in West Maui by the high winds and fires, CEO Shelee Kimura said at a news conference last week, noting the assessment was ongoing. About 300 of the utility’s 575 transformers had been visibly damaged and the Lahaina substation was destroyed, Kimura said.

- CNN’s Anna-Maja Rappard, Natasha Chen and Paradise Afshar contributed to reporting.

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