Puna, 20 May 1997
Hilo, 26 June 1996
Hawaii's environment won a big vistory when Judge Riki May Amano's ruled that the powerlines to Kehena were placed illegally. The judge refused to hear testimony about the Environmental Assessment filed by Hawaii Electric Light Company (HELCo) but the case hinged on the surprising testimony of one decent, honest county employee, Jiro Sumada, who the truth about a procedural error: he signed the Negative Declaration stating that the Environmental Assessment was adequate without reading the document.
Judge Amano voided the Final Environmental Assessment, the Negative Declaration wrongly entered by Sumada, and all County permits. HELCo is required to stop all work on the line extension, which parallels the 1955 lava flow from Highway 130 to the Seaview subdivision and Kehena, while commissioning an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The judge noted that the County had been derelict, and that HELCo was not liable for court costs or damages. In her findings, Judge Amano sharply criticized the County of Hawaii's management of the process, noting that she was "appalled" by the "cavalier way" the county approved the Environmental Review when litigation was already being under way.
Before hearing the case, Judge Amano granted a motion for Summary Judgment which exempted her from considering the truthfulness and completeness of the EA. Claiming that it is not her job, she ruled that she need not look at any of the assumptions, methods, findings or conclusions in the document. Friends of the Red Road, who brought the suit to stop headlong development along the Puna coastline, had despaired when, under the guidance of Judge Riki May Amano, the State of Hawaii's Environmental Review Process appeared to be drowning. "This eliminates the single remaining obstacle to rubber-stamp approval of wholesale development in Hawaii. Friends of the Red Road was formed to preserve the pristine nature of their neighborhood of the Big Island. Now we find ourselves struggling against custom and entrenched bureaucracy to preserve Hawaii's environment," explained Athena Peanut, spokesperson for the group.
Friends of the Red Road assembled a panel of recognized experts to explain the EA's inadequacies, which understate threats to the quality of life for Kehena-area residents as well as a number of threatened and endangered species that make Puna their home. Following her refusal to hear testimony about inadequacies in the Environmental Assessment, Judge Amano refused to hear any of these expert witnesses, some of whom traveled far and gave much to help protect the aina. For example, new powerlines in the Seaview subdivision obstruct the flight path of the threatened 'A'o or Newell's Shearwater, a migratory seabird which flies at dawn and dusk. Strung but not yet energized, these powerlines follow the traditional flightpath of the 'A'o from its nesting sites out to sea across abandoned terrain so broken it is impossible to know how many of the Big Island's tiny breeding colony have already been taken. Judge Amano refused to allow the testimony of Dr. David Ainley, renowned orthinologist who had come from the mainland to inform the court of the 'A'o's habitat needs, which were glaringly missing from the defective EA.
Expert advisers, both Hawaiian and from the mainland, fear that Judge Amano's rulings pave the way for a rubber stamp environmental review process under which it will be easy for agencies and developers to submit generic, inaccurate, and incomplete environmental assessments. Corporations like HELCo and the County Planning Department will be free to decide the fate of the environment on the Big Island. Elsewhere in the United States, the environment is protected by a consistent, well-administered body of law, but here, where the environment is so fragile and important to our quality of life, decisions will be left in the hands of those who have demonstrated their carelessness and greed.
Appearing for the Friends, Isaac Hall and environmental law attorney Liam Sherlock agreed that in this case, a procedural error saved Kehena and the 'A'o. HELCo's line extension was hastily permitted and improperly noticed. "In North Kohala, the community was able to get together and defeat a HELCo project because the laws were observed. This was not the case in Puna," Hall observed. "If citizens cannot challenge an Environmental Assessment and Negative Declaration in court, how can the truth be found?" Sherlock wondered. "This case goes far beyond Puna. The quality of life for all residents, shearwaters and humans, hangs in the balance."
-- Michael Potts