STUDY ASSESSES IMPACT OF WORK ON HARBORS
Study reveals ups, downs of ferry-related harbor projects
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Maui Bureau
By Christie Wilson
A draft environmental impact statement released yesterday on ferry-related improvements at four state harbors says Hawaii Superferry and other large-capacity interisland ferries could have significant negative impacts on endangered humpback whales, cultural practices, traffic and the spread of invasive species, but also provide a valuable transportation option for people, vehicles and cargo that enhances the state's disaster relief system.
The state-funded report by Belt Collins Hawaii Ltd. said most concerns about ferry operations can be substantially addressed with mitigation measures, many of which are already in place.
Hawaii Superferry yesterday said the mitigation measures proposed in the draft EIS "are consistent with the operating standards and practices of Hawaii Superferry over the last year," including a whale-avoidance policy and vehicle screenings to intercept invasive species, marine resources and other contraband.
"The draft EIS combined with the data from over nine months of reliable service and 708 voyages provides a clear picture of our commitment to responsible operations and environmental awareness," the company said in a statement. "We remain committed to working with the state to address impacts raised by the draft EIS."
State officials had no immediate comment on the EIS, which so far has cost taxpayers $715,000.
"Today is not about (the Department of Transportation) responding to any particular impact that's identified in the report," said Michael Formby, head of the agency's Harbors Division. "It's about informing the public that the report's out on the street. It's a 1,200-plus page report and you've only got 45 days to respond in writing."
The DOT will not hold public hearings on the draft EIS but is accepting written comments. The agency held 12 public informational hearings while preparing the draft report and met with various government, environmental, business and community interests.
The final EIS is scheduled for completion in June or July, Formby said.
The EIS was required under Act 2, approved by the Legislature in a November 2007 special session to allow Hawaii Superferry and other large-capacity ferries to operate before environmental studies are completed. The law was passed in response to a Maui court ruling that shut down Hawaii Superferry's interisland service in the absence of an EIS.
The state spent $40 million on ferry-related improvements at Honolulu Harbor, Kahului Harbor on Maui, Kawaihae Harbor on the Big Island and Nawiliwili Harbor on Kaua'i, with most of the money spent on barge and ramp systems used to load and unload vehicles from Superferry's high-speed catamaran, Alakai, which can carry 836 passengers and 230 autos.
4-YEAR LEGAL BATTLE
The ferry has been sailing between Honolulu and Maui since December 2007 and plans to eventually expand service to Nawiliwili and Kawaihae.
The EIS examines the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of ferry-related projects past, present and future, but most of the document focuses on the consequences of ferry operations facilitated by the improvements, long a subject of controversy and a four-year legal battle that is now before the Hawai'i Supreme Court.
Superferry opponents say Act 2 is unconstitutional and that the environmental study is bogus because it does not conform with the state's "Chapter 343" environmental review law.
"This is a pseudo-EIS because it is not legitimate. We're waiting for the Supreme Court decision and we hope then a proper EIS can be done," said Irene Bowie, executive director of Maui Tomorrow, a citizens planning and environmental group that is a plaintiff in the court case.
"We feel this whole process has throughout put the environment at risk," Bowie said.
Bowie said she is also disturbed by the "unresolved issues" mentioned in the EIS, which include whether the state will provide adequate funding to effectively run the Department of Agriculture's biosecurity program aimed at preventing the spread of pests.
Another unresolved issue is the longtime recreational and cultural use of commercial harbors for surfing, fishing, canoe paddling, diving and other uses not compatible with commercial port operations.
The EIS essentially endorses many of the 40-plus operating conditions imposed on Superferry by an executive order that accompanied Act 2. The conditions include unprecedented screening of ferry passengers and vehicles that no other Hawai'i carriers are required to undertake.
The report said ferry operations increase the risk of the spread of pampas grass, miconia, the little fire ant, the varroa mite and other pests "simply because it adds to the existing base of numerous operators (including both airline and barge services)."
Still, the fact that ferries allow for the rapid movement of cargo encourages transport of diversified agriculture that may contain pests, and there are additional risks from unwanted stowaways hiding in vehicles, camping equipment, hiking boots and dogs transported by ferry passengers.
Nonetheless, the EIS said, the Superferry represents "a small fraction of the overall risk."
On the subject of humpback whales, the EIS noted that a review of worldwide whale- ship collisions indicates that vessels larger than 262 feet long and traveling at speeds greater than 14 knots have a tendency to inflict the most severe injuries. Further, whale mortality is close to 100 percent as a vessel's speed approaches 24 knots.
The 350-foot-long Alakai cruises at 30 knots.
There were 22 reported whale-vessel strikes in Hawaiian waters from 1975 to 2003, with the numbers increasing in recent years, said the report. Two-thirds of the collisions occurred in Maui waters.
The executive order operating conditions require that Superferry use routes that avoid shallower waters of 100 fathoms or less where whales prefer to congregate.
When rough seas force the vessel to travel through the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, it must slow to 25 knots or less. The ferry also is required to maintain a distance of 500 meters from sighted whales, although federal and state laws require only a 100-yard separation.
The Superferry employs dedicated whale lookouts, night-vision equipment and a $250,000 high-tech sensor system that can detect whale spouts at night by measuring differences in the air temperature.
The EIS recommends continued use of most of those practices and suggests modifying the alternative route to skirt Penguin Bank southwest of Moloka'i, a particularly whale-dense area.
"With continued implementation of the existing whale avoidance protocols and effective execution of the additional mitigation measures (in the executive order), the risk of large-capacity ferry vessel collision with a humpback whale can be considered minimal. Hence, large-capacity ferry vessel operations are not expected to have significant impacts on the humpback whale population."
In acknowledging concerns about depletion of subsistence resources such as fish and game animals, the report notes that fishing and hunting already are strictly regulated by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. In any event, only a small number of ferry passengers could be expected to fish or hunt on their visits, according to the EIS.
Based on Superferry screenings for its Honolulu and Maui voyages, the EIS estimates the annual reef fish take from ferry passengers would be 8,240 pounds, or about 0.5 percent of average annual take for recreational fishermen statewide.
In regard to worries about increased road traffic from ferry users, the report says road improvements could resolve problems anticipated at intersections near the Maui, Kaua'i and Big Island harbors.
The EIS said the net impact of vehicles arriving on ferries would be very small in relation to number of vehicles registered in each county.
In touting the "significant" public health and safety benefits of large-capacity ferry service, the report said the vessels "would provide a superior marine mode of transportation for disaster planning and emergency response. This particular type of ferry vessel would increase the capabilities and response times of first responders and relief efforts."
The environmental study doesn't provide recommendations for mitigating the passionate opposition to the Superferry by some Kaua'i residents who fear the introduction of an interisland ferry service will threaten natural and cultural resources throughout the island.
A cultural impact assessment advised more emphasis on enforcement of conservation laws that protect resources, meetings to address concerns about degradation of fishing and diving spots and surf breaks, and educational programs for ferry passengers.
The report said the direct impacts from construction of the harbor improvements are limited to the Maui and Big Island harbors. At Kawaihae Harbor, construction noise and vibrations could affect nearby Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Park, and the presence of shed and storage areas would affect views from the heiau.
Those impacts could be softened by creating a landscaped buffer and an appropriate paint color, according to the EIS.
The problems are greater at Kahului Harbor, where a 2030 master plan calls for relocating the ferry berth from Pier 2C on the east side of the port to the undeveloped west breakwater. The move, which already has generated considerable community opposition, would eliminate two popular surfing spots and a clubhouse for old-time fishermen, restrict access to shore fishing, and limit the area available for canoe paddling and diving.
The report said mitigation is not possible since the harbor is the region's only protected ocean area.
DOT officials have said the west breakwater project won't happen soon because of the state's weakened financial position.
Reach Christie Wilson at email@example.com.