Bill would exempt projects from environmental review

Robert Harris
Robert Harris
Governor Neil Abercrombie
Governor Neil Abercrombie

HONOLULU(HawaiiNewsNow) – A proposal to exempt specific types of state projects from environmental review needs just one more majority vote in the House of Representatives before going to the governor's desk for his signature.

Senate Bill 755 (SB-755) would apply to state construction projects at airports, harbors, schools, and other state owned property in close proximity to the ocean. Those projects currently require a Special Management Area permit because of their proximity to the ocean, but if SB-755 becomes law, SMA permits would no longer be required.

The bill would also allow the governor to create a list of state projects he feels would have little or no impact on the environment and would therefore be exempt from environmental assessment. Under current law the 15 person Environmental Council (under the Office of Environmental Quality Control) decides whether or not projects should be subject to an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.

Several environmental groups object to the proposal because they believe, if adopted, it would threaten Hawaii's natural resources.

"There's a lot of bad examples in the past where people have done projects without really planning, without really looking to the community for involvement and later on those projects get held up because they didn't think things through. They end up costing a lot more and they wind up costing a lot more," said Robert Harris, Director of the Hawaii Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Harris also worries about granting the governor so much control over environmental issues.

"One of the things that the bill does is it essentially immunizes the governor from any challenge," Harris said. "If an agency decides not to do an environmental review, the public can't challenge that ever. And I think the sweeping level of power that that gives the governor, while maybe he's good intentioned, you know you are not always going to be right 100% of the time and we just want to make sure, if it's this governor or the next governor that there is some level of check and balance," Harris added.

Many labor unions support SB-755 because it could create jobs by putting state capital improvement projects on the fast track.

House Speaker Calvin Say, who supports the bill, believes there are other rules and regulations to sufficiently safeguard the environment.

"We are not exempting it (projects) from the clean air, clean water laws that we have on the books. And we are not exempting it even from the state historic preservations," Say told Hawaii News Now.

Say doubts the governor would abuse his authority by adding questionable projects to the exempt list.

"If the governor was to exempt a particular project over the objections of the general public … he would not get elected," Say said.

The governor would have between now and June 15, 2015 to add projects to the exempt list. After that no new projects could be added, but projects already on the list would be exempt.

Governor Neil Abercrombie says he will wait to see SB-755's final form before deciding whether or not to support it.

"I'm pro environment and pro jobs. They are not in opposite camps," Abercrombie said.

SB-755 was being debated by the House Finance Committee Monday night. If it passes out of the committee it will go to the full House for a third and final vote. The measure has already been approved by the full Senate.

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