Maui government files lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric, utility company accused of compromising Lahaina wildfire evidence

Maui County launched a lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric Company and its subsidiaries on Thursday, accusing the utility company of negligence that led to the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

In the lawsuit, Maui County officials accused the Hawaiian Electric Company of acting “negligently by failing to power down their electrical equipment despite a National Weather Service Red Flag Warning on August 7th.”

“The lawsuit further alleges HECO’s energized and downed power lines ignited dry fuel such as grass and brush, causing the fires,” Maui County said in a statement. “The lawsuit also alleges failure to maintain the system and power grid, which caused the systemic failures starting three different fires on August 8th.”

“The fire was a direct and legal result of the negligence, carelessness, and recklessness, and/or unlawfulness” by Hawaiian Electric Company, the lawsuit claims.

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“These damages include losses to public infrastructure, fire response costs, losses to revenues, increased costs, environmental damages, and losses of historical or cultural landmarks,” the press release read.

The Maui wildfires in early August destroyed roughly 3,000 acres and over 2,200 structures and caused an estimated $5.5 billion in damages.

The wildfire death toll stands at 115. On Tuesday, the FBI said between 1,000 and 1,100 people remain unaccounted for in the wake of the Maui fires.

Maui County is suing Maui Electric Company Limited, Hawaiian Electric Company Inc., Hawaii Electric Light Company Inc., and Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. for civil damages to public property and resources caused by the Hawaii wildfires. The lawsuit was filed in the Second Circuit Court.

Hawaii Electric said in a statement, “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.”

Two class action lawsuits have already been filed against Hawaiian Electric. One lawsuit alleges the utility company chose not to “de-energize their power lines during the High Wind Watch and Red Flag Warning conditions for Maui before the Lahaina Fire started,” despite knowing the risks of fires.

The lawsuit alleges the utility company “also chose not to de-energize their power lines after they knew some poles and lines had fallen and were in contact with the vegetation or the ground.”

Hawaiian Electric Company is being accused of compromising evidence before federal investigators could examine the situation, according to a new report.

The Washington Post reported, “Hawaiian Electric — which acted quickly to restore power on the island after Aug. 8 — hauled away fallen poles, power lines, transformers, conductors and other equipment from near a Lahaina substation starting around Aug. 12, documents show, before investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) arrived on scene.”

The outlet noted that Hawaiian Electric Company’s 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 National Fire Protection Association states:

The integrity of the fire scene needs to be preserved. Foot and vehicle traffic moving through the area must be kept to a minimum or eliminated. Firefighters should enter this area only if necessary for fire operations. Evidence should not be handled or removed without documentation. The area should be cordoned off by the use of flags, tape, or posting personnel at the scene to restrict access.

Michael Wara, who directs the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University, told the Washington Post, “If a lot of equipment is already moved or gone by the time investigators show up, that’s problematic because you want to observe where the equipment was relative to the ignition site.”

Hawaiian Electric spokesman Darren Pai said the utility company has been “in regular communication with ATF and local authorities and [is] 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.”

The Seattle Field Division of the ATF announced on Aug. 17 that its National Response Team was deployed to Hawaii to “determine the origin and cause of a wildland fire that occurred on the island of Maui, Hawaii, on Aug. 8, 2023.”

At a press conference on Aug. 15, a representative for Hawaiian Electric said the company launched an investigation into the causes of the Hawaii wildfires.

ABC News reported, “When pressed about why power lines were not de-energized during powerful winds, the representative said that, unlike California, the state does not have a shut-off program, saying they are ‘controversial’ and not universally accepted, and adding they create a hardship for the vulnerable and people with medical needs. She also pointed out that electricity powers the pumps that provide water to fight the fire.”

Hawaiian Electric provides power for 95% of residents on the islands of Oahu, Maui, Hawaii, Lanai, and Molokai.

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