Court ruling on ferry means environmental laws apply to all


POSTED: Sunday, March 22, 2009

In its March 16 ruling, the Hawaii Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that businesses must follow the laws established to protect Hawaii's people and environment and the communities they call home. The court's decision also made clear that Hawaii's environmental laws apply equally to everyone - even big corporations able to lobby for special exceptions.

Community groups pursued legal action for one purpose only - to uphold the key principle of Hawaii's three-decade-old law that an environmental review must take place before projects that commit public resources can proceed. Such a review requires honest consideration of the real environmental, cultural and socioeconomic impacts of the proposed project, and allows decision-makers to contemplate available alternatives and measures necessary to avoid harm. For this reason, environmental review has been called “;democracy in action.”;

The special treatment that the Hawaii Superferry obtained from our state administration and Legislature trampled over these principles. The Superferry bailout also raised serious concerns about other corporations receiving similar exemptions, thus evading and eliminating the public participation and review process. Hawaii's highest court ultimately found the Superferry bailout to be a violation of the “;fundamental principle of the democratic nature of government; equal rights and treatment for all persons under the law.”;

Contrary to common misstatements, the Superferry has not been singled out for environmental review. Harbor improvements involving other operations, such as Young Brothers and Matson, have required their own environmental reviews.

In the short term, the court's decision will have unfortunate repercussions on the jobs and lives of members of our community. No one desired this outcome. We repeatedly urged, to no avail, that the Superferry and the Department of Transportation complete an environmental review before operations began. Even state auditor Marion Higa found that the state and the Superferry knew at the outset that the proposed ferry needed to comply with the environmental law. But they swept this under the rug to accommodate the Superferry and its incessant “;now or never”; demands.

It's regrettable that the Lingle administration and Superferry deliberately chose expediency over sustainability and accountability. It's also disappointing that the Legislature sent the wrong message that Hawaii's laws can be violated and then changed at the behest of a single special interest.

This case has never been about opposing business development or mass transit in Hawaii, but about responsible stewardship of our shared natural resources and community values. Our door has always been open to good faith efforts to provide jobs and alternative transportation in a responsible manner. The health of our island economy and society depends on such balance, and we shouldn't settle for less.

The takeaway message should not be that Hawaii is “;bad for business,”; but that it is bad for businesses in our island community to cut corners and work the political process to get special favors.

We hope that future projects will embrace the public review process as a positive tool to develop better outcomes. By anticipating and highlighting issues for resolution at an early stage, this process saves time, money and heartache, gives a voice to Hawaii's people and communities and lets the knowledge of our citizens be put to work to shape their own future. In the end, such “;democracy in action”; can only lead to a better balance between development and our unique and irreplaceable environment and culture that are at the heart of Hawaii's economy and well-being.


Robert D. Harris is the director of the Sierra Club, Hawaii chapter.