Legal Battle Could Stall Superferry's Maiden Voyage

William Wynhoff
William Wynhoff

HONOLULU (KHNL) -- A legal challenge could stall the Hawaii Superferry less than a week before it's scheduled to set sail. Now its fate is in the hands of the Hawaii Supreme Court.

The much publicized countdown to the Hawaii Superferry's maiden voyage has been on for months. It's scheduled to launch next week, but a court case could throw cold water on that plan.

Environmental groups claim the Superferry's operators have not done an environmental assessment.

"If you don't do an EA, the people that are at risk are us, the citizens," said Isaac Hall, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "They haven't done the studies. They haven't developed mitigation measures, so they're going ahead and doing their project without any mitigation. That's totally irresponsible."

The state of Hawaii, which has been an ardent supporter of the Superferry, argues proper steps have been taken.

"There are specific lists of exemptions to doing environmental impact statements, and environmental assessments, and we believe that the actions that were taken at Kahului harbor in this regard, are specifically within those exemptions," said William Wynhoff, deputy attorney general for the state.

Opponents though claim only a traffic study was performed, and there should have been other investigations.

"With respect to studies on impact to whales and alien species introduction, there were no studies on that," said Hall.

"That issue has come up and assuming that it's true, there certainly has been a whale avoidance policy carefully thought up by the Superferry and, in fact, uniquely thought up by the Superferry," said Wynhoff.

The five justices spent Thursday morning listening to testimony, and asking pointed questions. Both sides remain hopeful the ruling will be in their favor.

"I was encouraged," said Hall. "I thought the justices asked good questions. I thought they were concerned about what happened in the case."

"We expect the Supreme Court will take whatever amount of time it feels necessary to come out with a thoughtful and well-written determination," said Wynhoff. "I couldn't guess how long that's going to be."

The Hawaii State Supreme Court took just hours, issuing a ruling Thursday afternoon.

All five justices unanimously ruled a Circuit Court judge on Maui erred when he said the Superferry was exempt from conducting an environmental impact statement.

The case was brought forth by three environmental groups.

The justices said the Superferry did not conduct an impact assessment on the effects, if any, the project may have on such issues as marine life and traffic management at Kahului Harbor.

Thursday's ruling jeopardizes the interisland ferry's scheduled launch next Tuesday.