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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 20, 2010

Utility charged in bird deaths

By Diana Leone
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

LĪHU'E, Kaua'i The federal government has indicted Kaua'i's electric utility for creating conditions that allegedly have led to the deaths and injuries of hundreds of threatened and endangered seabirds.

The U.S. Justice Department indicted Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative for alleged violations of the Endangered Species and Migratory Bird Treaty acts, the utility said yesterday.

"KIUC is deeply disappointed by the Justice Department's decision to file charges in a matter where KIUC has been working diligently for the past decade with every state and federal government agency and other stakeholders to achieve workable solutions to protect endangered Hawaiian seabirds," the company said in a statement.

A 1995 study estimated that 300 or more birds a year are killed or injured by streetlights and utility wires, said David Henkin, a lawyer for Earthjustice. The legal firm has sued KIUC and the St. Regis Hotel in Princeville this year on behalf of Kaua'i residents, alleging violation of the Endangered Species Act regarding the birds.

The species of concern are threatened Newell's shearwaters and endangered Hawaiian petrels. Birds can be disoriented by bright lights and fall to the ground exhausted, or can fly into electrical wires they cannot see.

Shielding of streetlights since 1995 has reduced the number of birds harmed, but more needs to be done, including undergrounding of utility lines in key bird flight paths and preservation of their nesting habitat in the mountains, Henkin said. Shearwater populations on Kaua'i have declined 75 percent in the past 15 years, he said.

"We welcome the filing of a criminal indictment and we think it's appropriate," Henkin said. "We welcome state and federal enforcement to send a strong signal, not just to the utility, that we're no longer going to allow people to flout the law."

Kaua'i-based KIUC attorney David Proudfoot said he could not comment because he had not seen the indictment by late yesterday afternoon.

The Department of Justice, which had opened a criminal investigation targeting KIUC in March 2007, could not be reached for comment.

The utility has been in talks since 2001 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state Division of Forestry and Wildlife over ways it can reduce harm to birds, said KIUC support services manager Carey Koibe.

KIUC's proposed Habitat Conservation Plan is awaiting action by the state and federal wildlife agencies, Koibe said.