By: Nick Pope, Daily Caller News Foundation
Hawaiian Electric, whose equipment reportedly sparked the Maui blazes, may have cleared damaged power poles and other infrastructure from a key fire scene before investigators were able to assess the location, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
The utility company sought to quickly restore power on the island after the fires erupted on Aug. 8 and destroyed the town of Lahaina, killing at least 115 people, according to the Post. Work crews began clearing debris on Aug. 12 from the substation near where the fire may have started, two days after a law firm representing more than 20 Lahaina families had made requests to the company to preserve potential evidence pursuant to prospective litigation, the Post reported.
The utility’s decision to begin clearing debris could have been in violation of national guidelines regarding steps utilities ought to take to preserve potential evidence, the Post reported. The decision to clear the damaged infrastructure in that location denied investigators the opportunity to examine the scene in undisturbed condition, the Post reported.
The utility asserted that it was “taking reasonable steps to preserve its own property” in a response to the requests of the residents’ attorneys, according to the Post. Because numerous local, state and federal agencies were present to combat the fires and remove leftover debris, it was “therefore possible, even likely, 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 electric company said, according to the Post.
“Hawaiian Electric will take reasonable steps to preserve evidence but cannot make any guarantees due to the rapidly evolving situation on the ground, which also is not within our control,” the firm said in response to the requests, according to the Post.
The alleged premature removal of evidence is the latest information indicating possible ineptitude at Hawaiian Electric. The company appears to have focused on green energy initiatives at the urging of the state government, while mostly failing to make safety upgrades to its existing energy infrastructure, even as the mounting risks of fires had been known to utility and state officials for a number of years before the tragedy occurred.
The state government also appears to have been slow to approve a cost increase for ratepayers to finance Hawaiian Electric’s proposed $190 million undertaking to shore up fire safety, a standard financing arrangement for utilities making large investments, instead bogging down the utility’s request in red tape, according to The Wall Street Journal. The utility had said that it would not begin the work until it had negotiated a deal with the state to recover the costs from ratepayers.
During the wildfires, state and county officials reportedly opted to delay a request to divert water for firefighters to use, chose not to sound the emergency siren system and reportedly blocked the only roadway out of Lahaina, among other crucial mistakes.
Hawaiian Electric did not respond immediately to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.