HECO still pursuing Wa'ahila project
By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
Despite a critical report from a hearing officer, Hawaiian Electric Company says it is undeterred and will press on with its $31 million project to install new, taller utility poles and a new high-voltage line on Wa'ahila Ridge.
HECO officials say the utility has invested more than 16 years and millions of dollars pursuing the project and the work is critical to meeting future power needs.
Opponents have forced HECO to fight for the project at more than 150 public hearings and neighborhood board meetings and to defend itself in Circuit Court.
Now HECO will rely on the state land board to see the issue its way.
"There is no perfect place for a power line and at the same time somebody has got to be accountable for keeping the lights on and we are those guys," said HECO spokesman Chuck Freedman. "We do plan to take up our disagreements with the hearing officer's recommendation with the Board of Land and Natural Resources in the proper forum. We will be presenting the case. We still believe this is still a critical infrastructure for the reliability of our customers."
Retired Maui Circuit Judge E. John McConnell, appointed by the board to assess the issues last fall, released a 71-page document Friday detailing his findings and recommending that the board deny HECO's request to build on the ridge. HECO received a copy of the report in the mail yesterday.
HECO wants to install a 138,000-volt transmission line to link the Pukele substation at the back of Palolo Valley to the Kamoku substation at Date and Kamoku streets, 3.8 miles away. The project would replace 20 40-foot wooden poles between Dole Street and Pukele substation with new steel ones as tall as 110 feet.
HECO officials said the work is needed to ensure service to 54 percent of their customers and to prevent major power failures such as one in the mid-1980s that left most of O'ahu in darkness.
Environmental and historic preservation groups have argued that the construction would be an unsightly intrusion upon the conservation district and would detract from its use by Native Hawaiians as a cultural and spiritual site.
The Land Board has until mid-July to vote on HECO's request for a Conservation District Use Application, the permit needed before the utility can proceed. However, the board could decide before then, said chairman Gilbert Coloma-Agaran. Oral arguments are set to begin in April.
In his recommendation, McConnell said HECO "substantially overstated" the public need and benefit for the project; that power failures that occurred in the 1980s would not happen today because of improvements already made by the utility company; and that "practicable alternatives exist" to putting the lines up Wa'ahila.
McConnell also said HECO has already spent about the same amount of money fighting for the Wa'ahila Ridge plan as it would have cost to put in the more expensive alternative to put the power lines underground in Palolo Valley.
"He is assuming that the costs for planning to go underground would be minimal," Freedman said. "In his report, the hearings officer basically adopted the recommended findings of the opposition and incorporated them into his report. That is a common practice of hearing officers. The information was presented adversely and much of it is inaccurate."
Henry Curtis, head of the Life of the Land environmental group and a party to the contested case hearing, said the report is accurate.
"I think the judge has done a very thorough analysis and saw through a lot of HECO's contradictions," Curtis said.
Freedman said if the Land Board rejects the project, HECO would likely pursue the Palolo alternative.
"If we cannot get the necessary approvals for the line we are proposing, we would then propose going all underground," Freedman said. "At the same time we recognize that there are folks in Palolo that don't want this project to go underground. There is no automatic OK. We would have to go through the planning process and work with the community and deal with opposition there too, and we would do that as responsibly as we could."
Palolo residents have opposed putting the power lines underground through the valley in the past and would oppose it again, according to Gladys Hayes, chairwoman of the Palolo Neighborhood Board.
"We don't think it is necessary right now," Hayes said. "From what has been reported to us, there are a lot of more modern options that can be done much easier than digging up our streets."
Freedman said other groups, including the Public Utilities Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy and the state Department of Defense all see the need for improved power capacity on O'ahu and support the project.
"We are disappointed in the hearing officer's decision," Freedman said. "We recognize that somebody has to be responsible that the lights on this island stay on. We are not going to wait for a crisis to happen before we take the planning steps and actions to avert it."
Reach James Gonser at email@example.com or 535-2431.