Environmental Council needs better support


POSTED: Monday, November 23, 2009

Through a single action, we have an opportunity to save the state money, protect our environment and avoid embarrassing mistakes like the Hawaii Superferry situation. We can accomplish all of this by giving the Hawaii Environmental Council (EC) the support it needs to do its job.

The EC is a 15-member body that serves as a liaison between the Office of Environmental Quality Control and the public. It's made up of dedicated, unpaid volunteers from all the islands and from varied backgrounds, including business, education, planning and the environmental community. Under the state Department of Health, the Council advises on issues dealing with environmental protection, specifically the Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Statement processes.

Each month, the OEQC receives 20 to 30 EA and EIS applications for projects across the state. Government agencies often have to complete an EA or EIS before moving forward on public works for our community. Since an efficient environmental review benefits everyone, it's imperative that we have a functioning and effective Council to guide both the government and the private sector. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.

On July 23, after months of struggling to do its job with inadequate resources, the Council voted to cease future meetings until the administration provided adequate meeting facilities for video conferencing, staff support, financial support for an annual report, and prompt approval of long-overdue appointments to bring the Council up to full membership.

Up to that point, the Council had endured months of unsatisfactory support from the administration. While the Council submitted updated administrative rules to the Governor's Office more than three years ago, those rules were never approved or sent out for public hearing. Nor did the Council learn why the rules were rejected.

On Sept. 8, I wrote Dr. Chiyome Fukino, the Department of Health director, asking about her plan to remedy this situation. When I didn't receive a timely response, the Senate Energy and Environment Committee—which I chair—held a hearing to seek answers. While the DOH agreed before the hearing to offer the Council a better meeting room, it would not commit to ensuring that the Council have the support and resources it needed.

We are faced with the fact that the administrative rules for environmental review have not been updated since 1996, despite years of effort by the Council to revise them. Without guidance from the Council, government agencies are stuck with old lists for determining whether a project should be exempt from environmental review, and so may have to do EISs just to be safe, wasting valuable state funds. At the same time, we have projects like the Superferry that try to get by without a review where clearly one is needed. We need to be spending fewer resources on the small projects that don't harm the environment and more on those that could potentially have a negative impact. A diverse citizen's advisory body can help ensure appropriate balance in the process, and that our environment is protected.

The current situation is penny-wise and pound-foolish; it has to change. The Council is a critical part of our efforts to keep Hawaii a beautiful place. The fact that it cannot meet right now could have dire environmental, social, and economic costs.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard (D-Waikele/Village Park/Makakilo/Kapolei) chairs the Committee on Energy and the Environment.