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Monday, April 21, 2014         

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Delays in state waivers stall environmental projects

By Sean Hao

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A University of Hawaii coral research project doesn't sound like a major threat to the environment, but it has been stalled because researchers have been unable to get an exemption from the law requiring a costly environmental impact statement.

UH researchers can't take tissue samples from live coral or remove test plates with new coral growth until the EIS issue is cleared up, said Michael Hamnett, executive director of the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii.

The delay is hurting research aimed at saving coral from the effects of things such as storm water runoff, Hamnett said. Several million dollars in research grants could be in jeopardy if the issue isn't resolved, Hamnett said.

Part of the delay is that the state body that could grant UH an exemption to the EIS requirement has not met since Aug. 17 of last year.

The volunteer Environmental Council suspended work last August, complaining, among other things, that the state was not providing it with adequate resources such as meeting rooms and staff support.

There are 10 EIS exemption requests pending before the Environmental Council, said Mary Steiner, chairwoman of the group's exemption committee. They include requests by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the city Department of Transportation Services and state Department of Accounting and General Services.

"We just need to find a way forward with whatever we need to do," Hamnett said.

On June 17, the Department of Health, which provides space and administrative support to the council, responded to the council's August 2009 complaints with a letter addressing many of its concerns.

The council tried to hold a meeting in late June, but was unable to book adequate state videoconference facilities, Steiner said.

"It seemed like we were moving forward, then it just stalled," she said. "I think that it is not a priority to our state or to our administration to have an active Environmental Council."

Steiner said council members have expressed concern that the group is being penalized possibly for ruling in 2007 that the state Department of Transportation erred when it exempted Superferry harbor improvements from an environmental review. That decision was later supported by a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that eventually led to the demise of the interisland ferry.

Linda Smith, senior policy adviser to Gov. Linda Lingle, denied that such a link exists. In general, the state struggles to find the financial and personnel resources for a variety of unpaid, volunteer panels including the Environmental Council.

The Department of Health says the issue of support for the Environmental Council has been resolved.

In June, Laurence Lau, a Department of Health deputy director, told the council that department videoconference facilities would be available for the council's use and that part-time staff support would be provided.

Lau said the 10-month delay between the council's complaint and the Health Department's response was the result of an internal misunderstanding.

The need has grown for rulings by the council on what activities can be exempt from environmental review. Those exemptions are supposed to provide agencies with a means to avoid costly environmental reviews for activities that don't significantly affect the environment.

A federal stimulus-funded, $3.4 million deal with the Nature Conservancy to remove invasive algae from East Oahu's Maunalua Bay was scaled back in part because an exemption was not available.

That project involves removing mudweed from about 22 acres in the bay. A project subcontractor initially sought a special activity permit for the work, which could have triggered an environmental study, said David Ziemann, the program manager for the Nature Conservancy.

Ultimately, a controversial staging area for the yearlong project was moved and algae removal practices were altered so a permit would not be needed. As a result, most but not all of the invasive algae is being removed.






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