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Measure would create environmental court


Crimes such as pumping pool water into the ocean and dumping trash on roadsides would be prosecuted better if Hawaii establishes an environmental court, advocates and regulators told state lawmakers this week.

A bill (Senate Bill 632) to create an environmental court within the state’s circuit courts is headed to the Senate floor. If ultimately passed, it would make Hawaii just the second state, after Vermont, to support a court specifically for handling environmental matters.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources were among those to testify in support of the bill. They said that having judges and courts with expertise in environmental law would help avoid costly legal appeals in complex cases.

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Bin C. Li, administrative proceedings coordinator at the Department of Land and Natural Resources, asked lawmakers to include his department’s enforcement statutes under the proposed environmental court’s jurisdiction.

The reason, he said after the hearing, came down to getting cases handled more efficiently.

"We have bigger cases and we have smaller cases," Li said, giving such examples as stream pollution, boats running aground on coral reefs and fishermen violating their licenses. "We’ve been seeing that DLNR cases have been taking a back seat in the judiciary system. We think by establishing this court, the Judiciary can process our cases with the priority and the urgency we think they should have."

State Supreme Court staff attorney Elizabeth Zack submitted testimony on behalf of the state Judiciary saying Hawaii courts already handle environmental matters quickly and with consistent rulings.

But environmental advocates who testified said afterward that environmental enforcement is often spotty in Hawaii, owing to the complexity and nonviolent nature of many environmental crimes.

"You’ve got illegal dumping," said Chris Woolaway, a beach cleanup coordinator. "You find construction materials, you find tires. Part of the challenge is the community is not aware, necessarily, of the laws that are already on the books."

Enforcement of environmental laws tends to increase in places that create environmental courts, said Marti Townsend, executive director of the Outdoor Circle.

Nearly 500 jurisdictions around the world, including dozens of U.S. cities, maintain environmental courts and tribunals, said George Pring, a professor emeritus at Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver and co-author with his wife, Kitty Pring, of "Greening Justice," a study of environmental courts.

"We have a real proliferation of environmental courts around the world, and it’s not just the rich countries doing it, by any measure," he said by phone. "We watched them in Bangladesh, for heaven’s sakes."

Such courts work better in some jurisdictions than in others, he said. When they do work, Pring said, the special courts save money and get complex cases through the system faster.

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