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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 11, 2003

Environment lobby dissatisfied with session

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Environmental advocates say they're dismayed that the 2003 Legislature failed to move out several major initiatives while forcing them to spend their time staving off bad bills.

"I don't feel like we lost ground this session, but most of the progressive issues that were up there either didn't move forward at all or fell victim to politics," said Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club Hawai'i Chapter.

Mikulina and officials of watchdog group Life of the Land said one of the environmental lobby's major disappointments was lawmakers' failure to pass House Bill 1029, which would have repealed automatic approvals of land use applications in certain cases.

"That was very frustrating," Mikulina said of the failed attempt to repeal a 1998 law which allows land use or related applications to be approved automatically if an agency has not taken a vote within a specified time.

Mikulina said the repeal bill was approved 47-4 by the House and had strong support by the Lingle administration but failed to get a hearing in the Senate Transportation, Military and Governmental Affairs Committee. Mikulina said he believed there were enough votes in the Senate late in the session to pass the bill, but that he was able to muster only eight of the nine required votes needed to wrest the bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor.

Environmental advocates believe the 1998 law has skewed the land use process, pointing to a Board of Land and Natural Resources permit obtained by Hawai'i Electric Light Co. for expansion of its power plant in Keahole as an example of what can happen.

The seven-member board had voted 3-2 against the permit, but four votes are required to carry a motion and HELCO was granted the permit automatically after a deadline for a decision passed. The project has been mired in litigation.

"No community should suffer because the government fails to perform," Mikulina said. "Granting permits based on time limits, rather than the merits of a project, is bad policy."

Sen. Cal Kawamoto, D-18th (Waipahu, Crestview, Pearl City), said environmental advocates are looking at the issue from the wrong perspective. The law should be changed to allow actions to be taken with a majority of a board or panel present, and not require a majority of the full board.

Kawamoto said he would support repeal of automatic approvals if that change were made. "It should be easier to get a quorum," he said.

The reason for automatic approvals was to force board members to take action quickly and avoid deferrals that could delay construction projects which help stimulate the economy, he said.

Kat Brady, assistant executive director of Life of the Land, is not sold. "Automatic approval is a planning disaster," she said.

"It's just bad policy," said state Rep. Hermina Morita, D-14th (Kapa'a, Hanalei), chairwoman of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection. "It's something that should have never passed in the first place."

Environmental advocates also were unhappy that the Legislature failed to pass regulations on pollution discharges by cruise ships.

"We feel while the cruise industry is growing here in Hawai'i, now is the time to get in with clear regulations," Mikulina said. "They're the only industry out there that's using our coastal waters that doesn't need a permit to discharge."

The chairmen of the transportation committees in both houses, Kawamoto and Rep. Joe Souki, D-8th (Wailuku, Waiehu), both would not hear any bills tied to regulation of cruise ship discharges, Mikulina said.

There is only a memorandum of understanding between the state and cruise ship operators, and it does not specify any penalties for pollution discharge.

Kawamoto said the memorandum was signed only last fall and has not been given a chance to work. "Cruise ships help the economy and before they even try to help us, we want to put restrictions on these guys. That's no way of doing business."

Environmentalists said they were forced to focus much of their efforts on bills they opposed, including one in the Senate that would have allowed landfills to be developed above water aquifers. That bill died on the Senate floor. A House bill, which also was eventually defeated, would have allowed major portions of the Koa Ridge residential and commercial project to bypass the city zoning process.

"Environmentally, I think we did very bad," said Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land. "We were doing more defensive fights like on the landfill, defensive fights to prevent things from slipping away than to achieve anything meaningful for the future."

Morita said "environmental and energy issues sort of fell by the wayside to the bigger issues of the budget." One bill that didn't make it, despite being supported by the House majority, would have tapped $100,000 from the state's portion of royalties collected from geothermal energy development and used it for hydrogen energy research. Such an appropriation could have set the table for much more in federal matching money, she said.

Environmentalists did point to some minor victories. Senate Bill 855 extends the renewable energy income tax credit of 35 percent for solar water heaters and 20 percent for wind-powered systems through 2008. Lingle has supported the measure.

Other environmental bills approved by the Legislature and are awaiting action by the governor would:

  • Require electric utilities to disclose annually the fuel sources it uses for energy production to their retail customers.
  • Add a fifth member to the Commission on Water Resource Management who would be required to have expertise in traditional Hawaiian water resource management techniques.
  • Provide the state and counties with protection from liability for damage caused by dangerous natural conditions on improved lands in cases where there are proper warning signs.
  • Establish by statute the Hawai'i Invasive Species Council to address the growing problem.
  • Help ensure that new coastal lands, known as accreted lands, are owned by the public and designated conservation except when landowners can prove such lands are replacing previously eroded lands.
  • Reduce the liability that private landowners face when people are eradicating invasive species on their property.
  • Require a management audit of the Public Utilities Commission before the 2004 legislative session.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.