Tuesday, March 9, 1999

Legislature should stay
out of power line issue

THE state Senate has engaged in legislative overkill in approving bills that would require high-voltage electric power transmission lines to be placed underground. The House should short-circuit these measures before they become law.

One bill would ban overhead lines carrying 64 kilovolts or more from residential areas and within 300 feet of schools and child-care facilities. The other would ban the lines in "an area viewed by tourists or an area important to the film industry."

The first bill could be defended as a health measure, based on contentions that electromagnetic fields produced by power lines can cause cancer. However, the National Cancer Institute conducted the largest study of the question to date and reported in 1997 that no link was found between childhood leukemia and exposure to the magnetic fields. To base a law on dubious science is irresponsible.

The other bill, dealing with tourist areas, is much more sweeping and ill-advised. Sen. Randy Iwase pointed out that there is virtually no area in the state that cannot be seen by tourists. Neighbor island senators objected to no avail that the measure would be especially burdensome for their constituents because the smaller populations on the neighbor islands mean the cost of underground wiring would be shared by fewer consumers.

The issue of overhead versus underground wiring is currently focused on Waahila Ridge, which separates Manoa and Palolo. There is considerable opposition to Hawaiian Electric Co.'s proposal to use the overhead system on the ridge, based mainly on the contention that it would ruin the view of Manoa.

Whatever the decision in this case, the general issue of overhead versus underground wiring belongs with the Public Utilities Commission. Overhead wiring is unsightly but may be preferable for economic or other practical reasons. Every case is different and must be considered individually by the PUC. The Legislature should not interfere in this process.


Inmates’ use of ‘ice’

PRISON officials investigating the suicides of four inmates this year suspect that they had something in common -- a history of use of crystal methamphetamine, known as "ice." Three of the inmates who hanged themselves were awaiting trial or serving a year or less. For this reason, explains acting Public Safety Director Ted Sakai, the prisons didn't have their drug histories. The fourth, musician Mackey Feary, had begun serving a 10-year sentence but was still in the reception assessment diagnostic unit at Halawa prison and had not yet been assessed.

Still, Sakai says, he believes that all four inmates had histories of using ice. "It's obvious ice is a major problem in Hawaii," Sakai says. "It's linked to crime." He adds that the prison system "must understand the symptoms associated with ice and we need to prepare our staff for it."

It's somewhat encouraging to see such statements by the prisons chief but it shouldn't have taken this rash of suicides to spark action. The fact that ice is associated with crime is hardly a secret.

Much more effort is needed to detect drug users in the prison population and to observe inmates for signs of depression that could indicate a danger that suicide might be attempted. Feary's family has claimed the state should have known that he was a potential suicide.

Sakai points out that in a system with 3,600 prisoners, it isn't easy for guards to keep track of the inmates who have used ice -- only those sentenced to more than a year are asked for their drug histories and some may not be truthful.

Still, the state must do better in dealing with this problem. The key appears to be filling staff vacancies and improving the training of guards. In a broader context, the state must work harder at educating Hawaii's youth about the dangers of drug use.


Colombian killings

ACCUSATIONS and denials cast uncertainty over the political ramifications of the killing in Colombia of three American activists, including Lahe'ena'e Gay, an environmentalist and cultural preservationist from Hawaii. Colombian and U.S. officials blame that country's main Marxist rebel group, which denies responsibility.

The fact that one of the casualties is a woman recognized for her work to preserve Hawaiian culture and the environment gives the incident particular relevance here.

The bullet-riddled bodies of the Hawaii woman and American Indian activists Ingrid Washinawatok and Terence Freitas were found bound and blindfolded last week in Venezuela, near the Colombian border. The three had been in Colombia to help an indigenous group, the U'wa people, fight to prevent oil drilling by Occidental Petroleum Corp. on lands in jungles near the Venezuelan border. The U'wa won a 1997 court ruling that has blocked Occidental from exploratory drilling on its land.

U'wa tribesmen who accompanied the three Americans when they were kidnapped by two gunmen wearing ski masks and civilian clothes on their way to an airport on Feb. 25 blamed guerrillas from the leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The State Department was quick to "condemn the FARC in the strongest possible terms for this barbaric terrorist act." The Colombian government claims having intelligence excerpts of radio communication by guerrillas giving orders to execute the kidnapped Americans.

However, FARC, which had expressed "solidarity" with the U'wa, has denied responsibility and suggested that the assailants came from illegal paramilitary groups or disgruntled sectors of the military. Freitas had expressed concern about being following by members of the paramilitary and threats by right-wing death squads, according to a friend.

Unless the rebels produce evidence supporting their claim of innocence, the incident could be a blow to FARC's hopes of gaining international legitimacy.

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