Thursday, August 4, 2005


Environmental analysis
needed for algae venture


Four citizens groups have filed suit to force the state to conduct environmental reviews of a project to produce genetically modified algae.

THOUGH Hawaii residents regard protection of the natural environment as important, state officials and decision makers appear to take a more relaxed attitude. The Board of Agriculture's disregard of a law that requires evaluation of the effects of importing and producing genetically altered algae in open-air containers on the Big Island is a case in point.

Rather than comply with the basic conditions of Hawaii's Environmental Policy Act, the board chose to place the state and taxpayers in a legal bind by approving a pharmaceutical company's permit without proper review. Moreover, the absence of independent analysis puts the environment at risk.

A suit filed on behalf of four citizens groups seeks to bar Mera Pharmaceuticals from importing the seven strains of algae and compel the board to abide by the law, which directs an environmental assessment, at the least, or a more complete impact statement, when such projects involve use of state lands, in this instance, the Natural Energy Laboratory on the Kailua-Kona coast.

The board's blithe acceptance of assurances from Mera and Rincon Pharmaceuticals, its partner in the venture, that the algae pose minimal or no hazards ignores the fact that little is known about how the modified microorganisms might affect the natural world. In addition, the plan to surround the open-air containers with ditches holding saltwater and bleach to kill escaped algae may not be adequate should there be a flood or hurricane, especially since the algae can be transported by air or water vapor.

In experimenting with the algae, the companies hope to develop antibiotics and other substances for use in treating a number of illnesses, a worthy goal. The algae being modified is common, found most anywhere, although strains here are unique to the islands.

However, because they can reproduce in a matter of hours and because they have never been introduced outside a laboratory, an analysis is warranted.

The import permit is required because the state Department of Agriculture has placed the algae on its list of restricted microorganisms and the modified strain was determined to pose an "above-moderate risk" by the agency's Plant Quarantine Branch.

These factors should have prompted the board to conduct an assessment, but if they aren't enough, officials should take note of a recent survey that points to the importance Hawaii residents place on the environment.

It showed that people want protections even if they cost them money and bar them from fragile areas. More than 90 percent of respondents said the state should prohibit sales of plants that could become nuisances and increase funding to eradicate invasive species as they start to spread.

The survey did not address "biopharms" or the algae project specifically, but the results make a strong statement for environmental concerns that officials should recognize and observe.

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