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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 15, 2010

Environmental reviews get stale quickly

The Hawai'i Supreme Court finally accomplished what the state's tangle of environmental law could not. The justices ruled that an environmental impact statement for a project is not an evergreen.

In the case of the long-stalled Turtle Bay resort expansion, the EIS lost most of its juice years ago. The court's common-sense ruling affirmed that on an island whose population now tops 900,000, such environmental reviews need to be grounded in the reality of today.

Now it falls to lawmakers to make sure developers have an environmental review law that blows away much of the hovering fog that enabled this mess to begin with.

The court last week ruled that the Turtle Bay document, prepared 24 years ago, did not fully cover environmental issues that have since arisen. This includes the presence of endangered monk seals that came on the scene more recently. And the review's section on North Shore traffic was probably outdated the month after it was published.

So now what?

Discussions on revising environmental statutes including Chapter 343, governing the EIS process are well under way though not expected to yield fruit this legislative session.

That's just as well. The working group of developers, environmentalists and others has been trying to hammer out some kind of consensus on updating the law, but it has run into some deep divides. The group will need the months between lawmaking sessions to bridge them.

For one, they've wrestled over whether to put an "expiration date" on an EIS, which is something that many developers find wholly untenable. Some projects take years longer than others, they say, and for those it would be impossible for a builder to invest in an environmental study with a firm drop-dead clause. Turtle Bay is just one of many big projects conceived during a boom, abandoned during a bust and revived after the recovery.

Until now, Chapter 343 has triggered a supplemental EIS only in cases in which the project itself changes. By ruling in the Turtle Bay case that the environment had changed so dramatically that the EIS was no longer valid, the judges have clearly suggested that these reviews need an expiration date.

It may be unrealistic to impose a rigid, one-project-fits-all deadline on environmental reviews.

But it would be disappointing if the experts and legislators reworking Chapter 343 developed squishy guidelines in an effort to achieve consensus.

The new law needs to clearly reflect the guidance of the court: environmental impact reviews start getting stale the minute they're released.