Here we are just shy of a month since the Ka Loko Reservoir dam breached and sent a deadly torrent of water down the Wailapa watershed taking seven lives.
Almost as quickly as it took the water to carry out its deadly deed, the finger-pointing began. When loss of human life occurs, people want answers.
And those answers started to flow almost immediately.
Before Kuhio Highway was even cleared of all the debris, there was a massive response on the local, state and federal levels. Within days, all dams on the island received a cursory inspection. Within two weeks, inspection teams consisting of state and federal agencies had more thoroughly inspected the dams. A state Attorney General’s investigation into the cause of the dam breach began. We learned that the dam was owned by a man recently fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for illegal grading, that the state had not inspected the dam for years, that the buildings that were swept away may have been built too close to the stream.
Almost a month later, the sun has come out and the healing process is beginning. But the true work to find the person or persons responsible for this event is just beginning. As of late, there has been emanating from various politicians calls for an independent investigation into the cause of the dam breach. The Attorney General’s investigation has a stain upon it with the perception that the state government is investigating itself — a state agency carrying out an investigation where the state may be culpable. It may be perceived as a scenario similar to grading your own test as a student.
In the days immediately following the breach, Gov. Linda Lingle admitted some culpability on the part of the state in the area of reservoir monitoring. Since then it has come out that the Department of Land and Natural Resources was sorely undermanned for their duty of dam inspections. The county may be found liable as well, for either allowing or not monitoring some of the causes, while the private land-owner will more likely field a good portion of the blame.
Whatever answers come in the months and years ahead, one thing is pretty certain … there will be litigation. Most likely from the families who lost loved ones, seeking recourse from the private landowner where Ka Loko is located. Any agency, government or otherwise, colored with any shade of responsibility for the disaster will be party to that litigation.
The current Attorney General’s investigation has over it a cloud of uncertainty, an appearance of conflict. If the state is liable for some of the blame for the disaster, the question is ‘How can the state investigate itself?’
If the Attorney General’s investigation, after it is completed, finds that the state is culpable, then that same office will be tasked with defending the state in any litigation arising out of the investigation.
There is the concern that the current investigation will look into the immediate causes of the dam breach and may overlook contributing factors such as stream diversion and grading activities and whether the county did or did not monitor or allow those activities. If the only outcome of the current investigation is why the dam gave way, who will find the answers to the bigger issues that will help avoid a reoccurrence?
Asking the right questions to avoid just such a reoccurrence would be the purpose of an independent investigation.
And if those answers can only be found through an independent investigation by appointing a special deputy attorney general with a separate budget, then so be it.