POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 31, 2010
The Army's longstanding legal battle over the use of Makua Valley, like the Hawaii Superferry fiasco, demonstrates the ultimate folly of trying to circumvent the state's environmental impact statement process for such a major project. Often pilloried by developers and others as an onerous and expensive burden, an EIS only seems to pose mounting problems and more delays when it's viewed as an obstacle to be avoided rather than a fact-seeking mission that serves the public interest.
The latest chapter in the Makua saga is being written now, with last week's decision by U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway over the Army's request to resume live-fire training in the Leeward Coast valley. At issue is the EIS that the court compelled the Army to prepare in advance, at the insistence of Malama Makua, the community group backed by the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice.
Mollway found that the Army had failed to adequately study how the training would affect cultural sites in the valley and Makua Beach limu -- seaweed consumed by families that fish in the area. The Army also did not do any subsurface investigations for the cultural sites, such as ancient burials or other artifacts of the valley's native Hawaiian history. The judge also found that tests of the limu at the beach detected arsenic contamination but were insufficient: Seaweed from other parts of the island would need to be compared to draw any useful conclusions about whether it's the Army activities that cause the contamination.
The judge will have a further ruling after a Feb. 23 trial on unresolved issues, including whether the Army violated an agreement to study the effects on marine resources area residents tap for subsistence. So the final conclusion of the case, and of the EIS studies, lies months or even a year away.
What's truly amazing is that this entire dispute over the extent of environmental studies the Army must do dates back a dozen years. Because of the litigation that ensued, no live-fire training has taken place in Makua since 2004. Since then, the soldiers have received the training they need in Schofield, Pohakuloa or elsewhere, and so far the Army has not made a persuasive case why now, more than five years later, the need to resume live-fire training is so essential that it outweighs disturbance to residential communities and damage to environmental and cultural resources.
That case isn't going to be any easier to make a year or more from now, when this latest legal hurdle has been surmounted. By that time, the federal government's fiscal troubles could be even worse; the Army needs capital improvements to pursue the training it has planned for Makua, and winning congressional approval for the funds will be that much harder.
All of this raises the question: Wouldn't the Army have been further along in its planning had it simply done the environmental studies required, without fighting them at every step of the way? Whether or not the training itself enjoys popular support, postponing the studies hasn't served Army interests.
Extensive environmental reviews aren't needed for all proposed actions, certainly, and the state should look for ways to avoid compounding governmental permit delays. But an EIS should be regarded as the tool that it is, one that makes it clear what effects we can expect from a major change in our environment. What it yields is information, a key ingredient in a healthy democracy.