Lawmakers demand answers from HECO at tense Capitol Hill hearing
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a tense hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, lawmakers grilled HECO on why power lines weren’t de-energized sooner on the day flames tore through Lahaina town — and why executives didn’t recognize the wildfire threat earlier.
“Tell us and the American people what was going on that morning and why you didn’t de-energize earlier?” U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith asked HECO President & CEO Shelee Kimura. She responded: “So when you’re asking why didn’t we shut off the power, that is not our protocol to do that.” Griffith, (R-Virginia), then replied: “Alright, stop right there.”
He then asked if HECO is re-examining those protocols. Kimura said the utility is. She added, “I want to make it absolutely clear ... that the cause of that fire has not been determined.”
The investigation was launched by Republican members of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Energy, Climate, and Grid Security Subcommittee.
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During the hearing, Kimura said the utility’s decision to not de-energize power lines on the morning of Aug. 8 was due to protocols made in 2019 for a wildfire mitigation plan. She says those protocols were based on what was learned from plans and missteps in California.
Kimura added energy safety officials determined de-energizing power lines preemptively wouldn’t be right for Hawaii, but conceded major issues with power pole maintenance. Some 2,000 poles were not tested or treated for rot or termites in the past 10 years.
“We all want to learn what happened that day so that it never happens again,” she said.
Kimura also said it would take about 12 to 18 months to know the exact cause.
Ranking Member Rep. Kathy Castor, (D-Florida), asked Kimura what protocols were taken once it was known the power lines were downed. Kimura responded that the utility would turn on a setting that “automatically” de-energizes a power line if a fault is detected.
SPECIAL SECTION: MAUI WILDFIRES DISASTER
Speaking at the hearing, U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda said that amid the “whirlwind” of investigations and litigations into the fires, “we must not forget the human element of this tragedy.”
“We all deserve answers but the most important question must be, ‘How do we keep the help coming to Maui? We are two days away from a shutdown,” said Tokuda, D-Hawaii.
“The wheels of the government must keep turning to provide support and resources, so they focus on recovery and rebuilding.”
Tokuda added that the tragedy on Maui has highlighted the disparities that exist in energy, telecommunications, transportation and water infrastructure. She says even before the fires it was a “constant struggle” to receive access to services and funding.
The committee is expected to continue investigating the wildfires. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy visited the disaster zone earlier this month, saying it’s vital that lessons be learned in the wake of the fire. “It’s clear we need answers into how this tragic fire occurred and what could have been done to prevent it from happening,” he said.
HECO is facing a number of lawsuits over the disaster that claim its power lines are to blame for starting the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century. But the company pushed back, saying power lines were de-energized in the area at the time the blaze started.
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