Maui County is suing Hawaiian Electric Company, alleging that the utility’s “intentional and malicious” mismanagement of its power grid led to the devastating wildfires that killed at least 115 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in August.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court, claims that Hawaiian Electric knew that the high winds and dry conditions in the area created a “tinderbox” situation, but failed to take steps to prevent the fires, such as shutting down power lines, The New York Times reported.
“Defendants knew of the extreme fire danger that the high wind gusts posed to their overhead electrical infrastructure, particularly during red flag conditions,” the lawsuit said.
Hawaiian Electric responded to the lawsuit, saying it is “very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding.”
The electric company faced criticism for allegedly pursuing green energy projects while delaying fire mitigation efforts. Financial disclosures and reports show the company worried about the state of its electrical grid, and specifically the risk of wildfires, but devoted resources to building out the utility’s green energy network with limited action to mitigate fire risk, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The lawsuit alleges HECO failed “to power down their electrical equipment despite a National Weather Service Red Flag Warning on August 7th.”
The lawsuit also says that HECO never created a “Public Safety Power Shutoff” plan that is “common in the Western United States.”
The fires are estimated to have cost Maui County $5.5 billion in damages.
President and CEO of HECO, Shelee Kimura, said earlier this week that the utility did not pursue a shutoff plan because it would be controversial. HECO also faces lawsuits from homeowners and shareholders who believe the utility was negligent, but this lawsuit marks the first time the local government has directly blamed the utility for the destruction caused by the fire, the Times reported.
The official investigation into the cause of the Maui fire is still ongoing, but it is likely that multiple parties will bear some responsibility.
The Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), the state's largest utility company, is already facing lawsuits alleging that its power lines… pic.twitter.com/1uC9oRMDSs
— Michael Rutchland (@MRutchland) August 17, 2023