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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 11, 2008

Ferry screeners effective early on

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By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

NO CHARGES YET IN RIVER-ROCK CASE

The state has yet to move forward with charges against three men who came to Maui in August on the Hawaii Superferry allegedly to load their pickup trucks with river rocks and return to O'ahu.

The Maui office of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement completed its investigation in October. DLNR officials on Friday referred questions about the status of the case to the Department of the Attorney General, which did not respond to a request by The Advertiser for comment.

The suspects came to Maui when the new interisland ferry service launched Aug. 26. However, a court order suspended ferry service Aug. 27 and the trio was stranded on Maui.

Their three pickup trucks were discovered parked at the ferry pier at Kahului Harbor filled with more than 900 large rocks of the sort used in imu, or cooking pits, according to DLNR officials.

A witness reported seeing the trucks haul away the coconut-sized rocks from Paukukalo, a five-minute drive from the harbor. Officials said there is no evidence the rock caper was masterminded by ferry opponents in an attempt to expose potential environmental impacts of the new interisland service, as some ferry supporters have alleged.

The three trucks remain in DLNR possession pending completion of the case.

The three men are suspected of violating DLNR rules that allow gathering or collecting "small quantities of pebbles or small rocks by hand for personal use," with the limit set at 1 gallon per person per day. The penalty for violating the law is a maximum fine of $500.

Christie Wilson

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During Hawaii Superferry's first weeks of operation, passenger and vehicle screenings intercepted coolers of 'opihi and other marine resources, fishing nets, dozens of dead honeybees and an uncertified shipment of 50 orchid plants, according to an oversight task force report.

A total of 39 rules infractions were discovered from Dec. 13 to Jan. 6, all but five caught by screeners at Kahului Harbor.

In their Jan. 31 report to the Legislature, members of the Hawaii Inter-Island Large Capacity Ferry Vessel Oversight Task Force said the interceptions show "the inspection process, to date, is effectively screening and removing banned items."

The screeners employed by Superferry are being monitored by personnel from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Although officials with those agencies said they have developed a positive working relationship with the company, they also wonder whether the effort can be sustained.

"Right now they're enthusiastic, they're doing a good job, they're asking the right questions, and they're interacting with our staff. Whether they can sustain that, I don't know," said Domingo Cravalho Jr., Compliance Section chief with the Department of Agriculture's Plant Quarantine Branch.

"But like anything else, if they're mandated to do it, I'm sure they will follow the rules."

Terry O'Halloran, director of business development for Hawaii Superferry, said the two state agencies have been a "great resource" for the company and have "provided a lot of training to our staff."

He said ferry employees have "embraced" the screening process and that they will continue to do an effective job in the absence of state monitoring. Screeners take pride in uncovering contraband and making sure passengers and vehicles comply with the rules, O'Halloran said.

"Our staff are people who live in our Islands. They live on Maui and they live on O'ahu and they are as concerned about protecting our environment as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Land and Natural Resources are," he said.

The ferry completed a total of 21 roundtrips between O'ahu and Maui during the reporting period of Dec. 13 to Jan. 6, the report said. The ferry did not operate from Dec. 26 through Dec. 29 because of rough seas.

The average load on the O'ahu-to-Maui leg was 167 people and 53 vehicles, and 157 people and 47 vehicles on the Maui-to-O'ahu leg, according to the report.

The 350-foot catamaran can carry 866 people and 282 cars.

The rules infractions discovered by screeners checking outbound passengers at the Honolulu ferry terminal include the orchid shipment, various seeds that also lacked agricultural certification, and two fishing nets, the report said.

The Maui infractions included 13 instances in which vehicles were found to be excessively muddy; a lavender plant and two coconut plants without certification; a fishing net; two cases in which vehicles contained rocks, soil, sand, dirt or coral; two instances in which 'opihi, lobster or other crustaceans were discovered; and three cases of passengers attempting to transport cut logs, trees or tree limbs.

Randy Awo, DLNR's conservation and resource enforcement chief on Maui, said several Ziploc bags of legal-sized 'opihi were confiscated from a cooler whose owner said he was ignorant of the restrictions. There were several other cases since the reporting period in which Superferry passengers tried to take ogo, an edible seaweed, and other marine resources aboard the vessel, he said.

Although the various contraband violated the ferry's operating rules, not all involved violations of state conservation or agricultural laws, officials said.

No citations were issued, they said.

The passenger and vehicle screenings also turned up more than 100 dead honeybees or bee parts in engine compartments, on grilles or elsewhere in vehicles, but the dreaded varroa mite was not detected in any of the bugs, Cravalho said.

The mite is a threat to the state's multimillion-dollar honey, queen bee and pollination industry and is an invasive species priority.

The spread of invasive species and depletion of natural and subsistence resources were among the issues raised by groups that won a court decision last year halting the new high-speed interisland ferry pending an environmental assessment by the state Department of Transportation.

The ferry oversight task force was established when Gov. Linda Lingle and the Legislature approved a law known as Act 2 that allowed the Superferry to operate while the assessment is conducted.

A related executive order signed Nov. 4 by Lingle established more than 40 operating conditions and protocols for the ferry while the environmental review is under way.

Many of the conditions mirror existing restrictions imposed on interisland shippers and airlines, such as those prohibiting interisland transportation of soil and plants without an agricultural inspection certificate.

But others are more restrictive. These include interior, trunk and under-the-hood inspections of vehicles, bans on transporting fishing nets, 'opihi, lobster and other crustaceans, and posting of lookouts to help avoid collisions with humpback whales.

O'Halloran said the operating conditions "are very doable and we're getting better at it as we get more practice."

So far, state monitoring of screenings has been provided on a month-to-month basis, but there is a sense among many task force members that it should continue indefinitely, Cravalho said.

He said he observed screenings at the Honolulu ferry terminal where teams of two to three ferry employees handle each vehicle, confirming bookings and vehicle registration and examining vehicles' engine compartments, trunks and interiors, and coolers and other containers.

A single Department of Agriculture inspector each is posted at the Honolulu and Maui ferry terminals to ensure Superferry is following the requirements set out in Act 2 and the governor's executive order, he said.

With only one roundtrip daily, the ferry monitoring "has not been too much of a burden" for the department, which has been able to adjust work schedules to provide staff, he said.

"We've been able to accommodate them," Cravalho said.

On the company side, "the Superferry is doing what is expected under the executive order, but whether they can sustain that type of screening process remains to be seen," he said.

DLNR is providing "periodic" monitoring at the Honolulu ferry terminal, according to Gary Moniz, chief of the agency's Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement. He said ferry workers have been "very attentive and helpful."

At Kahului Harbor, where the majority of the infractions have been found, a total of three conservation enforcement personnel are present daily to assist with screenings, out of a total Maui staff of 16, Awo said.

"We felt it was necessary for now to get the system up and running. We wanted to be able to assist the Superferry on the ground and help them understand what to look for and what the process is. We've had good working relationship with them," he said.

Awo said the rule infractions that have been recorded show what could occur when people begin using a new mode of transportation without adequate restrictions and monitoring.

"Just the mere presence of having (the Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement) on scene and working with the Department of Agriculture has been good. The message has been sent and it's worked out well," he said.

But he agrees with Cravalho that sustaining a thorough screening process in the months and years to come may be difficult.

The oversight task force recommended in its report that the Legislature approve funding for additional state inspectors to monitor ferry operations.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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