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‘Unnecessary damage’ feared with construction permit plan

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Legislation aimed at streamlining Hawaii’s construction permitting process could have broad environmental and cultural consequences, some state officials worry.

Measures that raise the most red flags are those that offer government construction projects exemptions from the environmental review process.

Environmental assessments and impact studies list the effects that proposed construction could have on the natural resources as well as on historic sites and cultural practices. The reports also give the public the opportunity to weigh in on planned development in their communities.

Streamlining the construction permitting process has been a legislative and administration priority this session as policymakers look for opportunities to create new jobs and stimulate the economy.

However, not everyone agrees that it should come at the cost of Hawaii’s environmental review process.

At a House Hawaiian Affairs informational briefing with key administrators Thursday, state Rep. Jessica Wooley (D, Laie-Kahaluu) observed, "Everybody in this room probably supports the idea of streamlining, perhaps creating jobs and making sure that important projects for airports are done in a timely and safe way, but at the same time what we’re talking about is full-scale exemptions of laws that have been on the books for three decades."

Gary Hooser, director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control, said his department can already make exemptions on a case-by-case basis, and there isn’t a backlog to stop it from happening quickly.

The exemption proposals assume that similar projects have similar impacts. However, Hooser notes that even standard projects like installing a culvert in a right-of-way can have a different environmental impact depending on where it’s located and what’s downstream.

"These measures have the potential to cause unnecessary damage," Hooser told committee members.

State Attorney General David Louie said even if the environmental study exemptions are passed, the state Constitution and common law would continue to protect natural and cultural resources even if no environmental impact study is conducted.

But some lawmakers and state officials still worry the proposed exemptions aren’t specific or narrow enough. "I have concerns about the potential results if these things go through, because once you exempt certain kinds of projects, we don’t necessarily have control over what’s chosen and what’s done," Wooley said.

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