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Tuesday, February 6, 2001

Sprinklers should be
in all high-rises

Bullet The issue: Two fires in recent days have demonstrated the need for sprinklers in all high-rise structures in Honolulu.

Bullet Our view: Tax breaks may be needed to gain the support of condominium owners for such legislation.

LEGISLATION requiring all high-rise buildings on Oahu to be equipped with sprinkler systems has been before the City Council for nearly a year. Fires that gutted a condominium on Prospect Street and set ablaze an elevator in a Waikiki condominium building in the past few days should prod the Council into action.

A fire that gutted the top floor of the First Interstate Building last April 1 -- described as the worst high-rise blaze in Honolulu history -- prompted Council members to propose sprinkler requirements. The 1975 ordinance that required new high-rises to have sprinklers exempted existing buildings. After the Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel fire in 1980, the Council required retrofitting of older hotels, but the 35 commercial and 312 residential buildings built before 1975 remained exempt.

Bills before the Council would require buildings 75 feet or taller to have sprinklers. Jane Sugimura, president of the Hawaii Council of Associations of Apartment Owners, maintains that residential buildings are relatively safe. Her organization opposes the legislation because of the expense involved to homeowners installing sprinklers.

Sugimura pointed out that a proposal to require that sprinklers be installed only in lobbies and other common areas would not have reduced the damage in the Prospect Street fire. That is why sprinklers should be required throughout high-rise structures.

Council Chairman Jon Yoshimura says the proposals call for retrofitting to be done in five years but the Council is considering extending compliance to 10 or 15 years. He said a task force of condominium and commercial property owners, engineers, Council members and city officials is awaiting a report by fire officials on policies elsewhere.

Each fire demonstrates that sprinklers are needed throughout every high-rise building. While sprinklers would reduce the cost of insurance for homeowners, the Council may need to include tax breaks to gain the support of condo owners for such a law.

Coral reef order
may go too far

Bullet The issue: President Clinton's order banning coral harvesting in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands includes putting precious coral in deep waters off-limits.

Bullet Our view: The order may have gone too far in the attempt to protect coral reefs.

FORMER President Clinton's creation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve has begun to show signs of being too restrictive. Restrictions on gathering coral from the reefs around the small, uninhabited islands have caused the only company collecting deepwater coral with submersible boats to go elsewhere. The new administration should review the Clinton directive and modify it where needed.

Clinton in December established the protected reserve around the islands, which extend 1,400 miles northwest of Kauai, making it the largest environmental reserve in the nation. It contains about 70 percent of the country's coral reefs.

During a stopover by Clinton on his way to Asia, Governor Cayetano said Clinton promised not to order a halt to fishing and the gathering of coral in the area. Precious corals, unlike coral reefs, grow in colonies at depths of 1,000 to 5,000 feet and lie in four known areas in the 84-million-acre reserve. Corals in reefs are symbiotically related to algae that rely on sunlight so are restricted to shallow waters.

Cayetano said Clinton promised that an agreement would be worked out among the state, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Western Pacific Fishery Regional Management Council, which manages fishery management plans in federal waters. No such agreement was reached.

The resulting restrictions may be excessive. Scott L. Vuillemot says they are a major blow to his company, American Deepwater Engineering, in gathering precious coral. "Layer upon layer of negative" factors, including reduction of the area where his company was allowed to operate by 75 percent, made it too costly for continued operations, Vuillemot said. He said he plans to move his two Deepwater 2000 submersibles to the Gulf of Mexico.

The fisheries council estimates the precious coral industry to be worth $1 million, with about $25 million in associated businesses. Fisheries analyst Kevin Kelly says Vuillemot's company is useful for other purposes, including the gathering of scientific data and naval salvage operations.

Clinton's executive order was aimed at banning commercial fishing activity that was incompatible with the area, but the order may have exceeded that intended purpose. The Bush administration should use testimony currently being gathered by the fisheries council to retool the order where needed.

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A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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