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Sunday, August 20, 2023
August 20, 2023 News Read
By Andrew Walden @ 7:30 PM :: 2353 Views

Red Hill: Hawaii Department of Health Conditionally Approves All 253 Repairs

DOD, FEMA Fully Engaged in Maui Recovery and Assistance Efforts

Fossil fuel giants fight for dismissal of climate change liability suit

Let's stay focused on helping Lahaina fire victims--Eventually the Facts Will Come Out

Housing proclamation raises ‘questions galore’

​Jones Act among protectionist U.S. policies that will drive up cost of rebuilding Lahaina

Whether DOE Should Have a Monopoly on Our Kids

Maui fire will reshape Hawaiian Electric

SA: … McKelvey, a state lawmaker for 18 years, said he has proposed legislation over the years to have Hawaiian Electric put power lines underground in critical areas such as Lahaina, but push-back over cost scuttled the bills.

“They fight it tooth and nail,” he said. “There’s zero excuse in my mind why power lines in Lahaina shouldn’t be underground now. No amount of money should be a reason not to do it.”

A new effort to do this, which McKelvey says is warranted at the Legislature next year, could apply to other areas in the state with dry brush land near populated areas, including parts of Leeward Oahu….

In 2020, PG&E Corp. agreed to pay $13.5 billion to roughly 70,000 victims of three wildfires — the Butte Fire in 2015, the North Bay Fires in 2017 and the Camp Fire in 2018.

Jonathan Reeder, a utility company analyst at Wells Fargo Corporate and Investment Banking, said California has an “inverse condemnation” liability standard that makes a utility liable if its equipment causes property damage, regardless of whether the utility acted prudently or negligently. Under this standard, if the utility wasn’t negligent, then damage payments may be passed onto ratepayers with regulatory approval.

Most other states have a liability standard based on negligence, Reeder said, and in this circumstance negligence by a utility company has to be proven for the utility to be held liable.

Hawaiian Electric on Friday said in a regulatory filing that no legal precedent exists for applying the California standard in Hawaii to an investor-owned utility.

PG&E used bankruptcy to survive a litigation onslaught stemming from the three fires, one of which killed 85 people. The company had faced hundreds of lawsuits and roughly $30 billion in damage claims….

Iwase said there could be public resistance to paying for wildfire mitigation and claims in Hawaii where electricity rates are already the highest in the country. A recent example of such sentiment, he noted, is high-rise condominium owners opposing a mandate to install sprinkler systems in their buildings….

Mina Morita, a former PUC chairperson who lives on Kauai where the utility company is a nonprofit cooperative owned by ratepayers, said past state leaders and regulators rejected an opportunity that could have put Hawaiian Electric in a stronger position to address challenges of modernizing its grid for mandated renewable energy expansion while also addressing other high priorities like mitigation of long-known wildfire risks.

In 2014, Hawaiian Electric agreed to being acquired by Florida-based utility giant NextEra Energy Inc. for $4.3 billion. The administration of then-Gov. David Ige opposed the deal, and it was killed in 2016 by a 2-0 vote by the PUC then led by Iwase, with one new member abstaining.

Ige was criticized for altering the PUC’s membership while the deal was pending, and Morita, who was replaced by Iwase, said Hawaiian Electric would have been in a better position to meet challenges if the deal had been approved.

“NextEra, in my opinion, was one of the few companies which had the financial backbone, technical expertise and management skills to take on this transformation for a new utility business model, largely utilizing renewable resources, to make Hawaii the utility model for the world,” Mo­rita said. “To just say it was a political decision by the Ige administration to squash the merger is an understatement.

“That costly political decision has caused HECO to hobble through a mandated business model transformation taxing its limited capacity. This would be similar to demanding to have an old race car become a new race car but you have to upgrade or change all the parts and fuel the race car, and train your pit crew with hardly any money while the car is still racing and you’re not allowed to lose.”

Morita doesn’t suggest that the Maui disaster wouldn’t have happened if the NextEra deal had been done. In fact, she said a rush to judge Hawaiian Electric isn’t fair.

“I am concerned that the rush to put the blame directly on HECO is like cutting off your nose to spite your face,” she said. “HECO operates a critical and necessary infrastructure that serves the public good. The costs to operate and maintain this important infrastructure is largely borne by the ratepayer. There are so many complex technical and financial parts that HECO had to weigh given competing priorities. Any large investments or expenditures ultimately have to be approved by the PUC for cost recovery, impacting rates. Unfortunately, there were many political decisions that set HECO on an uphill trajectory where its pathway just to operate a well-functioning utility was a steep uphill climb.”… 

ILind: In hindsight, was it a mistake to reject NextEra Energy?

read … Maui fire will reshape Hawaiian Electric

Coverup: Green Steers Lahaina Investigation Away from Criminality

Shapiro: Green’s daily briefings in the Lahaina wildfire tragedy…frequently move beyond facts and launch into speculation, promises he lacks the power to keep and self-­aggrandizement.

When he waded into questions to other officials on whether warning sirens should have been sounded or more water should have been released for the fire — subjects on which he lacks meaningful expertise — his anecdotal riffs potentially nudged the direction of supposedly independent future investigations.

Such freewheeling adds to the confusion, and can come across like the Donald Trump COVID-19 briefing at which he suggested toxic household cleansers could be consumed to protect against the virus.

There’s legitimate community concern that unscrupulous mainland buyers could take advantage of desperate fire victims by trying to grab their burned out properties for pennies on the dollar.

Green could have simply warned speculators off, put state agencies to work on fully utilizing regulations and the law to prevent swindles, and used land-use restrictions to discourage undesirable redevelopment.

Instead, he talked loosely about a moratorium on property sales to mainland buyers, which he had to walk back for obviously violating the U.S. Constitution — just as it would if Nevada banned Hawaii expatriates from buying real estate in Las Vegas.

The governor then spoke of a possible freeze on all land sales in the area, which is also questionable on legal and policy grounds.

We can’t assume all would-be buyers are scammers. What if respectable entities offer fair-market prices? Do we prevent landowners who have lost everything from accepting good offers that allow them to restart their lives?

We need to think these matters through carefully, not make policy by shooting from the hip at press briefings.

Then there’s the matter of the attorney general’s investigation into the fire’s origins and the state and county responses.

Green quickly made clear that he had instructed Attorney General Anne Lopez to undertake it, giving it more of a political sheen than a legal one. That impression grew when Green inexplicably announced the “comprehensive review” wasn’t intended to look for possible criminal or civil violations.

Why not? Criminal and civil cases are what lawyers in the attorney general’s office do, and legal charges have been brought in natural disasters on the mainland. Why rule it out here so soon, when we know so little about what happened? Why put a law enforcement agency in charge if law enforcement isn’t the purpose?

Lopez ultimately tossed the hot potato to an outside contractor to conduct what essentially is a performance audit. Lord knows what will happen if her contractor finds evidence of criminal or civil wrongdoing. Let the feds clean up our mess once more? ….

read … Green can talk our ears off — but he really shouldn’t

Hawaii Legislators Have Long Shortchanged Wildfire Protection: ‘We Could Have Saved Lives’

CB: Governors have known that wildfire suppression funding has been insufficient for at least 16 years….

… A memo prepared by Gov. Josh Green’s administration in January said that the program had “minimal resources” to carry out its wildfire mandate. That memo was sent to the Legislature to inform deliberations on bills and the budget.

It said money was the program’s “greatest obstacle” and that it had “a critical lack of staff.”

The memo went further, saying there was “a lack of public investment” necessary to avoid, fight and clean up wildfires, “despite existing and increasing risks to public health, safety, and the environment from the effects of wildfire.”

That message was relayed to lawmakers 16 years ago almost verbatim, in a memo submitted by former Gov. Linda Lingle.

House Finance Committee Chair Rep. Kyle Yamashita of Maui pointed out that the program’s $17.2 million was about 270% higher than in 2015.

A Division of Forestry and Wildlife worker standing amidst tall grasses in Waianae, close to where Hurricane Lane fueled multiple, simultaneous fires in 2018. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Yamashita also said in a statement that last year the state allocated an extra $1.8 million to DOFAW’s annual “fire resources.”

But that’s just one year. The best way to measure wildfire budgets, according to Pew Charitable Trusts’ research, is to look at a longer horizon.

Pew researcher Colin Foard, who wrote “Wildfires: Burning Through State Budgets,” said that using historical averages is now generally seen as the most accurate metric.

In July, before the Maui fires, DLNR State Fire Protection Forester Mike Walker said that when he took on his role in 2017 there was little if any money for fighting wildfires.

Previously, the division had to borrow money from other divisions and funds to be able to do its job.

Now an average of $3.2 million of the program’s total funding is dedicated to wildfire suppression, which is the result of Walker’s lobbying in recent years ….

read … Lawmakers’ Cold Shoulder For Wildfires

1,000 Missing?  Hope is hard to let go after Maui fire, as odds wane over reuniting with still-missing loved ones

AP: … Officials acknowledge they don’t have a firm number on the missing. Many initially listed as unaccounted for have since been located.

A spokesperson for Maui County, Mahina Martin, said Saturday that authorities involved in the search effort were working to compile a list of the missing, and continued to vet the information being gathered.

The only publicly available list has been put together by good Samaritans hoping to link family with loved ones….

P: Some may be ‘lost forever’ as authorities search for missing after Maui wildfires - POLITICO

SA: An unofficial, crowdsourced Google Doc lists 5,217 people as “found,” 882 “not located” and 20 “deceased”; however, there are challenges to verifying such information, including duplication and some entries that include more than one person.

CNN: Video: FEMA director addresses people that are unaccounted for in Hawaii after wildfire | CNN

SA: Search for victims continues a day ahead of rain, presidential visit | Honolulu Star-Advertiser (staradvertiser.com)

read … Hope is hard to let go after Maui fire, as odds wane over reuniting with still-missing loved ones

Why Maui's rebuilding effort will be so expensive

CNN: … the process of rebuilding the more than 2,200 homes and businesses that state officials say have been damaged by the Hawaiian fires will be far more expensive than building or repairing comparable homes in the continental United States.

Factors from the state’s own limited construction resources and the expense of shipping goods to higher salaries and a less mobile workforce will make the rebuilding process, always challenging after a natural disaster, even costlier.

All told, doing business in Hawaii is about 30% more expensive than the cost of doing business in the rest of the United States, according to Moody Analytics.

Construction costs in particular are likely even higher in Hawaii when compared to the mainland — about 44% more, according to an estimate from Verisk, a global insurance data analytics provider.

“Based on similar historical events, this is likely conservative, as building delays and supply and demand cause additional pressures on reconstruction costs,” said Verisk.

Higher lumber prices: Unsurprisingly, prices for lumber and other building materials were generally between 35% to 40% more in Hawaii than on the mainland even before the fires, said Beau Nobmann, sales manager for HPM Building Supply, a major building goods supplier in the state.

Now, the surge in demand for building materials could cause shortages, driving up prices further.

And because much of those building materials will need to be shipped in, supply chains could get snarled and bottlenecks could form.

“It could be like what we saw during the pandemic, with delays of six to nine months in some cases, before it starts to come back to pre-event,” Jason Thies, associate vice president of pricing analysis for Corelogic, one of the catastrophe modeling firms used by the insurance industry.

Hawaii is also known for stricter regulations, which can increase costs. For example, Nobmann said that all lumber imported into the state must be treated for termites.

Construction permitting generally takes longer in Hawaii than most mainland locations, said Jessica Leorna, CEO of the state’s Building Industry Association.

And goods shipped to Hawaii from US ports must move on US flagged ships under what is known as the Jones Act, which increases shipping costs when compared to foreign flagged vessels coming from Canada or Asia.

Labor costs and a less mobile workforce: The state also has among the nation’s highest average wages, according to the Labor Department. That’s especially true for construction workers, who were in short supply even before the fires, according to the state’s Building Industry Association.

A review of state wage data by Moody’s Analytics shows that the average construction worker in Hawaii earned about $60,700 in 2021, the most recent data available. That’s 32% higher than the US average….

read …  Why Maui's rebuilding effort will be so expensive

Maui Wildfire Burns Down Carpenters Union Barriers To Affordable Prefab Home Building

CB: … Houses made of pre-cut lumber that can be shipped to Hawaii and built quickly. Permanent modular homes that can be literally plugged into utility infrastructure on prepared sites. Cafes, shops and food courts created out of modified shipping containers.

These are the sort of things that could help rebuild Lahaina after the Aug. 8 wildfire that destroyed approximately 2,200 buildings.

In a departure from a long-standing tradition driven by Hawaii’s powerful construction industry, Gov. Josh Green said modular and prefabricated housing will play a role in creating homes quickly to serve displaced residents.

And the state’s most influential construction trade union has bought in.

“The answer’s yes,” Green said in an interview with Civil Beat, when asked whether homes or panels built off-site and even off-island could be part of the mix to rebuild Lahaina. …

Andrew Pereira, director of public affairs for the Pacific Resource Partnership, confirmed the organization is on board. Pereira said it is vital to build new homes quickly so island residents aren’t forced to leave — and possibly never return — for lack of housing.

PRP’s buy-in is important. The nonprofit, which represents the 6,000-member Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters and 240 general contractors, also has been one of Green’s major political supporters

PRP has long opposed pre-made construction because of concerns developers using the products would (literally) undercut Hawaii’s construction industry (unions) …. 

OPPE: Hawaii's Trade Union Supports Modular Homes for Rebuilding After Wildfire

read … Maui Wildfire Burns Down Barriers To Prefab Home Building

Bankruptcy? HECO Survival Dependent on Disaster Relief Loans

IM: … One of the major ratings firms has already downgraded the utility to junk status, and at least one other agency has the company’s credit ratings under review.

UNLESS: the utility is able to borrow using government disaster relief programs that do not consider creditworthiness; or it receives direct grants from the government (a bailout); or it regains an invest grade credit somehow (perhaps a government backstop/guaranty) they will not be able to borrow money in the bond market at a reasonable cost.  At that point bankruptcy would become increasingly likely.

So far we have not heard much from the Commission.  Presumably they are ramping up for the mandatory investigation required under HRS 269-9 and cannot speak on a lot of matters related to the fire.  But borrowing money at junk bond rates would require an increase in the electric rates themselves at some point.  The Commission and Consumer Advocate did not model the rates based on funding with junk bonds….

SA : Letter: HECO customers will pay much more | Honolulu Star-Advertiser (staradvertiser.com)

read … Would You Lend Money to Hawaiian Electric Now?

Why Don`t We Underground All Transmission Lines?

IM: … For aesthetic reasons, the Hawai’i Public Utilities Commission required undergrounding of a proposed Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) transmission line in the urban Honolulu area in 1973.

The Hawai’i Public Utilities Commission issued a decision on May 8, 1990, that was referenced by the Hawai’i Supreme Court in 1996. The decision has guided all undergrounding policies for the past three decades.

“The Commission agrees that laying transmission lines underground promotes aesthetics and preserves scenic views. However, the utility has the responsibility to minimize the cost to ratepayers in providing reliable electric service.”

“The cost of placing transmission lines underground is very high and the burden of that cost ultimately falls upon the ratepayers.

“Thus, unless (1) there is a compelling reason (which outweighs the costs) to place the lines underground or (2) there is a stated public policy requiring the lines to be laid underground or (3) the ratepayers as a whole consent to bear the high cost of putting the lines underground, we do not believe that we should require HECO to place the transmission lines underground.

“That placing the transmission lines overhead may obstruct one's view plane, in and of itself, is not sufficient cause to require the ratepayers to bear the cost of laying the lines underground.” …

read … Why Don`t We Underground All Transmission Lines?

Lawyers’ Liability Booster: Broken Pipe Make for Unsafe Water

AP: … California’s Tubbs Fire in 2017 and the Camp Fire “are the first known wildfires where widespread drinking water chemical contamination was discovered in the water distribution network,” according to a recent study published by several researchers including Whelton with the American Water Works Association.

(Translation: For the first time, lawyers figured out how chemophobia could allow them to profit from wildfires.

After the Camp Fire destroyed Paradise, California, officials didn’t initially understand that smoke and chemicals had leached into the water through broken and melted water pipes. So they did what was standard after other fires: they told people to boil water before use.

Concerned about benzene contamination, the Paradise Irrigation District water utility then changed the order and told people to avoid the water, district Assistant District Manager Mickey Rich said.

(CLUE: More liability for PG&E, therefore HECO.)

Four days later, the California State Water Resources Control Board announced people could drink it as long as it didn’t smell. Two and a half weeks later, that agency announced there was benzene in the water.

(CLUE: More liability for PG&E, therefore HECO.)

Two months after that, a third agency, a county health department, told the public the water was unsafe and not to attempt to treat it on their own….

(CLUE: More liability for PG&E, therefore HECO.)

(SOLUTION: Plumbers not lawyers.  Make the lawyers work as plumbers’ assistants--digging up the broken pipes with their bare hands.)

John Pritchett: Flock Of Lawyers

read … Maui water is unsafe even with filters, a lesson learned from California fires

Real Reporters from mainland Remind us how local media is controlled by political insiders

CB: … Before I arrived in Hawaii in 2016, I had been a reporter on the mainland for 25-plus years. I have taken part in many media scrums and testy exchanges. I’m sure I have barked a few nasty questions myself, frustrated that politicians or officials were not leveling with us. I was, in essence, one of the yapping dogs of the press. 

But one thing I recognized soon after getting off the plane in Honolulu was that this kind of confrontational journalism has not generally been practiced here. Press conferences at the mayor’s office sometimes reminded me of journalism on the mainland as I imagine it circa 1962 – the reporters and officials were all part of the same chummy club. Someone calls saying Public Official X is groping women — don’t worry, X, we got you covered.

One of my first stories at Civil Beat was critical of a state department. Soon after it was published, the head of that department called me and asked if she could meet with me. She came to our office, and in gentle tones, explained that since I had just arrived, I probably didn’t know how things were done in Hawaii. I had spoken harshly to the department’s spokeswoman. Not pono. 

Not to worry, though, she said – this kind of thing happened all the time with newcomers. In general, in her experience, people like me tended not to last too long in Hawaii. 

I found the meeting somewhat bizarre and disorienting. It took me an hour to realize that she had, very politely, just informed me that I was an ignorant haole who would soon be booted by general consensus off the islands. …

read … Bare-Knuckle Reporting On Maui Fires Runs Headlong Into Culture of ‘Aloha And Kindness’

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