Failure to complete study set Superferry on doomed course
The Hawaii Superferry presents a classic case of how not to do business in Hawaii. Superferry's lack of planning and violation of the Hawaii Environmental Protection Act has created a public debacle
, inconvenienced its customers and put Hawaii's environment at risk.
Three years ago the Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow and Kahului Harbor Coalition asked the Hawaii Superferry and the Lingle administration to complete an environmental review of the Superferry. Unknown environmental and public safety risks, concerned neighbor island communities and a clear reading of the law demanded it.
The review would have occurred while other planning proceeded. The administration and Superferry corporation, however, decided to gamble and chose to skip this mandatory environmental disclosure process. A unanimous Supreme Court decision -- announced just hours after oral argument -- called their bluff.
Then, despite the decision from Hawaii's highest court, Superferry executives decided to roll the dice again and start service early. Again, they lost when a judge ordered them to cease service to Maui.
A responsible company doesn't allow a problem to get to the point where it receives a restraining order. The company lost in court, lost neighbor island support and lost credibility.
Now poor planning and lack of community involvement angered some Kauai residents to the point of taking justice into their own hands, risking arrest (or their lives) to block the arrival of the Superferry. The Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow and Kahului Harbor Coalition do not condone lawbreaking -- either by the Superferry or by the protesters. The protests, however, surely reflect the deep sense of injustice many neighbor islanders feel toward the Superferry -- contempt that has been irresponsibly inflamed by its proceeding in open disregard of the law.
This is why the public review process is so important in the first place: to involve the affected communities, to understand the environmental tradeoffs, to separate fact from fiction and to protect the environment against unintended consequences. Unintended consequences like the spread of mongoose to Kauai. Or the disastrous varroa bee mite to Maui. Or coqui frogs everywhere. These pests can easily become stowaways underneath car or truck bodies or inside the bushels of produce being transported.
And with the Superferry shuttling hundreds of private vehicles and farm trucks daily, spreading these pests is all but guaranteed -- unless proper protections are put in place and funded. For neighbor island farmers, the cost of new invasive species brought by the Superferry could be their livelihood.
The high-speed vessel operation itself may pose a threat to the marine mammals. Traveling at 25 knots through known whale calving areas may make riders sick in more ways than one. Environmental reviews are used to fix problems before they occur. They don't just look at wildlife but at social consequences such as unbearable traffic, curtailment of traditional Hawaiian activities and costly freight increases to small businesses. What are the best ways to minimize harm to Hawaii's unique environment and communities? That's what we'll learn with an environmental review. Ultimately, the review process produces a better outcome for all involved, island-style.
When public taxpayer dollars are used as they are with the Superferry, the public has a right to ask questions -- and get answers. Otherwise we might all be taken for a ride.
The environmental review process is a routine procedure. Private companies and state and federal agencies complete reviews all the time. The state Department of Transportation has completed numerous such reviews in the past year. New roads, harbor improvements, airport upgrades -- they all go through the process. Significantly, the DOT even required and conducted a full environmental impact statement when a ferry system just on the Island of Oahu was proposed. And what about existing modes of transit between islands, such as air travel or barge traffic?
As the Supreme Court stated in its unanimous decision, "The Superferry presents particular risks that are not borne by the existing methods of transportation."
Yes, the review process can be messy because you have to deal with real science -- not soundbites and promises -- and real public input. Superferry would actually have to respond to questions in writing and publish the answers. Yes, it takes a few months to complete. But the resulting document provides clear answers on what adverse impacts are expected -- and how best to prepare for them.
So why did Superferry and the administration choose to skip this process three years ago? Why did they choose not to complete an environmental review after the community groups asked, after neighbor island lawmakers asked, after the Maui, Kauai and Big Island county councils asked, even after the state's own Environmental Council ruled that it was required? Why not? Were they worried about disclosing something the public wouldn't like to hear?
Hawaii is like no other place on Earth, with hundreds of species found nowhere else on the planet and deep community values. To protect this uniqueness, the Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow and Kahului Harbor Coalition requested Superferry and the DOT to comply with our keystone environmental law years ago. They chose to ignore the law. Our position hasn't changed: If the Superferry is going to operate in Hawaii's waters, we all deserve that it be done right.
Three decades ago when the Hawaii Environmental Protection Act was enacted, state elected leaders made clear that the environmental review be a "condition precedent" to implementation of a proposed action. In other words, the study must be complete before the project starts. We must look before we leap. It's not only common sense, it's the law.
Jeff Mikulina is director of the Sierra Club, Hawaii Chapter; Judith Michaels is acting president of Maui Tomorrow; and Jeffrey Parker is director of the Kahului Harbor Coalition.