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Maui farmers, fishermen sue over stream diversions

WAILUKU >>  A group of East Maui taro farmers, fishermen and gatherers recently filed suit against the state, Alexander & Baldwin and others after learning the state granted revocable permits to allow the company to continue to lease land in East Maui for its stream diversions.

Plaintiffs Na Moku Aupuni O Ko’olau Hui, Healoha Carmichael of Keanae, Lezley Jacintho of Honopou and their Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. attorneys want the state “to follow the law” by requiring A&B to conduct an environmental assessment for the sugar company’s stream water diversions, The Maui News reported Thursday. The environmental assessment is required under state law because the diversions occur on state-leased ceded lands. Plaintiffs also want the current permits to be invalidated.

The plaintiffs argue that the water diversions have long caused significant environmental and cultural impacts on stream habitats and cultural resources and could also impact the future of cultural practices and traditions.

A&B, through its subsidiaries, East Maui Irrigation Co. and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., diverts around 164 million gallons per day from the East Maui streams for its 36,000 acres of sugar cane fields and provides water for Upcountry residents. The practice has been ongoing for around 100 years through ditches, tunnels and flumes.

Ashley Obrey, staff attorney with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., explained that because there is a pending contested case regarding A&B applying for a 30-year long term lease of the former crown lands, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources had a “holdover” on the land lease permits on a month-to-month basis until the case is resolved.

Instead, on Dec. 12, the state renewed the revocable permits, Obrey said.

“The BLNR has repeatedly represented that this ‘holdover status’ remained in effect until the long-delayed contested case hearing concludes,” according to a release from the Legal Corp.

“The state has repeatedly betrayed our clients’ trust, so they bring this lawsuit because the law should and will prevail here. It must,” Obrey said in the news release.

In addition, defendants named in the lawsuit filed Friday in First Circuit Court on Oahu include Carty Chang, interim chairman of the BLNR; the state Department of Land and Natural Resources; A&B’s subsidiaries East Maui Irrigation Co. and Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Co. and Maui County’s Department of Water Supply. (The lawsuit said Maui County is only named as an interested party.)

An A&B spokeswoman said the company does not comment on lawsuits. A DLNR spokeswoman also declined comment.

Obrey said the East Maui residents learned about the revocable permits being approved at a different contested case hearing being held on Maui recently regarding the stream water flow standards for 27 East Maui streams that lie in the area licensed for A&B’s water diversions.

The residents were tipped off when they listened to testimony from an East Maui Irrigation official, the Legal Corp. said.

Hearings in the East Maui water case concluded earlier this month on Maui.

Parties in the case, which include Na Moku Aupuni O Ko’olau Hui, are awaiting findings from the case’s hearings officer.

Obrey said the contested case over the long-term lease is pending until the outcome of the stream water flow standards case.

Obrey added that she didn’t think that the recent lawsuit would have a negative effect on the East Maui stream case.

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