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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 12, 2007

Lawmakers insist on Hawaii safeguards

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Ferry workers laid off
 •  Hawaii Superferry lays off 249 workers

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa

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State Senate Democrats yesterday described the Lingle administration's draft legislation to help Hawaii Superferry as unacceptable, which will delay a decision on whether lawmakers come back into special session to save the project.

The draft, shared with Senate Democrats in private caucus yesterday afternoon and also with House Democrats, would require the state to perform a full environmental impact statement on $40 million in state harbor improvements for the ferry and the secondary effects of ferry service on the environment.

While the draft calls for an environmental impact statement rather than the narrower environmental assessment required by the state Supreme Court Senate and House Democrats said it fails to include any conditions on ferry service to prevent whale collisions, the spread of invasive species and increased traffic at harbors.

The Superferry would be allowed to resume service to Kahului Harbor on Maui, which has been blocked by a Maui court, and its operating agreement with the state would be restored. A 17-member task force of state, county, environmental and business leaders would examine the impact of the Superferry and report findings to the Legislature before the 2009 session.

State Attorney General Mark Bennett is expected to consult with lawmakers on revisions to the draft, which would then go back before Senate and House leaders for review before they would agree to a special session.

"I don't believe the bill in its present form is something the caucus will go for," state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), said.

'INSENSITIVE' IMAGE

Hanabusa also said lawmakers are not contemplating changes to the state's environmental review law. Instead, they are discussing something tailored for Superferry that would also have conditions to protect the environment while the state conducts an environmental review.

State House Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell, D-24th (Manoa), said House Democrats likely would also insist on conditions.

"I think this creates some problems in our caucus as well," he said of the draft.

But, more ominously for Superferry, several senators said Superferry executives have acted with arrogance and may not deserve any help. Superferry executives, they said, have communicated mostly through lobbyists and not done the kind of outreach that would help them now that they are in crisis.

Some also questioned whether the Superferry's announcement yesterday that it was laying off 249 workers was timed to influence a special session.

Thousands of people have sent e-mails to lawmakers in the past few days asking for a special session, including many who were directed by the Superferry's Web site. Some lawmakers have received more than 3,500 e-mails, according to staff, including a smaller share opposed to a special session.

Hanabusa said the e-mails generated through Superferry have not been helpful. She also said Superferry executives should re-evaluate how they have been approaching lawmakers and a special session.

"I will tell you one of the criticisms that people have about the Superferry, and this is something that they should take to heart, is that they have been extremely to a certain extent insensitive to the situation," Hanabusa said. "They have not, as far as I know, other than through their high-priced lobbyists, even approached many of the senators or representatives who really now hold the key to whether they are going to be able to operate.

"But that's not as important as the fact of just coming to tell us what is it that they feel they need, or how do they want to assist us in the process. And for us, we want to know how they want to start to help mend the divisions within our community. So those are very critical issues, and we haven't heard from them."

Superferry executives did not return telephone calls seeking comment left with their public-relations team.

Some in the Senate say they offered to compromise on an environmental review of the project last session but were turned down by Superferry executives, the state, and House Democrats. The Senate's intent was to allow the ferry to launch service while an environmental impact study on state harbors was performed.

"From the beginning, the Superferry has had the wrong approach to this. They have always had a problem in being forthright and talking with us straight," said state Sen. J. Kalani English, D-6th (E. Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i).

English said Superferry executives have not approached the Senate with "aloha," humility or the spirit of cooperation.

"Every step of the way, the Senate has offered compromise," he said. "And every step of the way, they have rejected it."

State Sen. Jill Tokuda, D-24th (Kailua, Kane'ohe), one of the senators critical of Superferry in caucus, said she does not recall speaking to Superferry executives other than perhaps in passing at the start of last session. But she said there is always hope for middle ground.

"I wouldn't say it's irreparable, but I have to see more," Tokuda said.

SPLIT ON SESSION

The state Supreme Court ruled in August that the state's decision to exempt the Superferry project from an environmental assessment was improper and that a review is necessary for Kahului Harbor on Maui.

A Maui court ruled on Tuesday that ferry service could not resume at Kahului Harbor while the state conducts the environmental assessment, which will cover all harbors the ferry hopes to serve.

Superferry suspended service to Kaua'i after protests. Kaua'i activists have also challenged the Superferry's use of Nawiliwili Harbor in court.

State Sen. Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai), said environmentalists have exploited the state's environmental review law to stop a business that a majority of people support.

"The law is really out of balance and unfair," he said.

Several Senate Democrats, however, said that while yesterday's caucus did not go well for Superferry, they believe a legislative remedy is still possible. According to people familiar with the caucus, about one-third of Senate Democrats would support a special session, about one-third are opposed, and about one-third would likely support a special session if conditions are placed on ferry service to protect the environment.

"I'm still hopeful," said state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-13th (Kalihi, Nu'uanu), who supports Superferry. "I think we have enough votes."

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.