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Wednesday, August 3, 2005



Groups sue over
algae import permit

A coalition wants an
environmental review

The Hawaii Board of Agriculture violated state law by permitting a biotechnology company to import genetically modified algae into a taxpayer-funded facility on the Big Island without proper environmental reviews, a coalition of community and environmental activists alleged yesterday in a lawsuit.

The suit, filed in state Circuit Court in Kona, claims that the Board of Agriculture violated the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act when it granted a permit in June allowing Mera Pharmaceuticals to import several strains of "biopharmaceutical" algae to a state facility in Kailua-Kona.

The plaintiffs are the groups Ohana Pale Ke Ao, Kohanaiki Ohana, GMO Free Hawaii and the Sierra Club's Hawaii chapter. They are represented by the Honolulu office of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.

The suit claims the state board granted the permit without conducting an environmental assessment as required for activities on state or county land. Without that basic review, it is impossible to tell whether the board should be required to perform a more involved -- and potentially more costly -- environmental impact study, said Isaac Moriwake, a lawyer for Earthjustice.

The suit asks the court to bar Mera from importing the algae until the Board of Agriculture has complied with state environmental laws.

A spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture declined to comment yesterday, saying the agency had just received the complaint.

The suit was filed just more than a month after the Board of Agriculture granted Mera a permit to import several strains of fast-growing, genetically modified microalgae to its facility, located on the Big Island at a state-owned business incubator. The company is working with Rincon Pharmaceuticals of San Diego to conduct tests on "biopharmaceutical" algae, which has been genetically altered to produce experimental drugs intended to treat a variety of illnesses. The permit also allows Mera to grow the algae in outdoor containers located at the facility.

The board's granting of the permit followed objections from numerous citizens who questioned the algae's potential to spread outside the facility, pollute nearby areas and cross-breed with native algae unique to Hawaii.

The suit calls the nearby Kohanaiki area "a center for traditional Hawaiian activity," containing ancient places of worship, altars, petroglyphs and brackish ponds used for shrimp gathering. Kohanaiki was the focus of a landmark 1995 Hawaii Supreme Court decision upholding the right of native Hawaiians to have access to private land for traditional practices.

"Hawaii's land use laws have been of utmost importance to the organization," said Karen Eoff, president of Kohanaiki Ohana. "In this case, it just seems obvious that the need for environmental review is imperative."

"Hawaii state law requires that the state do its homework before rushing in and approving something like this," said Nancy Redfeather, spokeswoman for the Ohana Pale Ke Ao. "There are too many unknowns that weren't answered at the hearings."



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