EIS reform: The cure may be worse than disease
There’s a fierce battle raging over proposed changes to the laws that protect Hawaii’s fragile environment.
The intent behind the changes are worthwhile: to make the nearly 40-year-old statutes more efficient and transparent, for the benefit of the environment and also economic development.
Who could argue with that?
Almost every stakeholder imaginable, it turns out. Senate Bill 2818, the culmination of two years of study by a University of Hawaii panel, was greeted with almost universal criticism after it was introduced in January.
Environmentalists, developers, government agencies and business groups all complained about various aspects of the bill, which would rewrite the laws governing environmental impact reviews. Since then, SB 2818 has gone through substantial revisions. It cleared the Senate Tuesday and crossed over to the House.
Even so, it’s far from ready for prime time. Negotiations are continuing, through a working group of stakeholders huddled behind closed doors, trying to craft compromise language that would be included in any final version of the bill.
It’s this lack of consensus on nearly every aspect of the bill that is worrisome.
A common-sense approach needs to be brought to the existing law so that small, benign projects don’t need to go through pointless and expensive environmental reviews.
Large projects requiring an environmental impact statement should be governed by clear and transparent rules to avoid another Superferry fiasco, for instance, or the untimely resurrection of a 34-year-old hotel development plan for the exquisite Turtle Bay shoreline.
Nonetheless, care must be taken; this is a bill with huge consequences. It would revamp Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapters 341 and 343 to fundamentally change how environmental reviews are handled. Here are just a few of the many changes under consideration:
• The nine “triggers” that launch environmental assessments or environmental impact statements would be eliminated. Regulatory agencies would come up with specific lists of exemptions to environmental review laws. This could streamline the process for small projects, but detractors fear it could create even more regulatory confusion and uncertainty.
• The Environmental Council, an advisory body of volunteers, would take a more active role in environmental policy, most likely diminishing that of the director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control.
• An expiration date for an EIS, possibly 10 years, is included. Environmentalists say this will discourage land speculation and, citing the Turtle Bay case, put time limits on impact assessments; developers say it’s impractical for large projects that take years to plan, finance and build.
It's time to pause and take a deep breath. The current statutes are cumbersome, but for the most part they work.
Improving the statutes needs to be done patiently, judiciously and in full view of the public. It may take less ambitious legislation this year and a plan to follow up next session. That’s OK. It's important to get this right.