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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 4, 2010

Measure twice, cut once for EIS

By Sen. mike gabbard

Smart planning takes patience. We have to get it right the first time, because we know how time-consuming and expensive things can be when we get them wrong. Consider how much time and money we've spent fighting invasive species, fixing traffic problems, recovering endangered species or reversing climate change. In Hawai'i, with our fragile environment, it's best to measure twice and cut once.

In 1969, Hawai'i became the first state to adopt an environmental review system. However, in the four decades since, the system has undergone only Band-Aid fixes. It needs a comprehensive overhaul.

The environmental review process should be a key building block to smart planning. It gives communities a say in shaping a project. At the end of the process, Hawai'i is better-planned, cleaner and more sustainable. Everyone benefits.

So it's not surprising that discussions at the Legislature about reforming the laws governing Hawai'i's environmental review system have sparked public interest. The Advertiser's Thursday article spotlighting this discussion has helped to focus public attention on how we should move forward together to modernize this system to fit our 21st-century needs. That's a good thing.

In 2008, the Legislature directed the University of Hawai'i to conduct a multi-year study to provide recommendations for modernizing our environmental review system. Those recommendations were presented to the Legislature on Jan. 1 and became the basis for Senate Bill 2818, which I introduced.

At its first public hearing, most of the testifiers on SB 2818 were opposed. In response, I invited a number of those opponents, representing a spectrum of development and environmental interests, to join in an effort to find common ground and provide recommendations to improve the bill. Let me emphasize that while this working group consisted of people with considerable experience and expertise in their fields, it was strictly an advisory body with no lawmaking or rule-making powers. It was a success: What this group accomplished in six short weeks reinforces my faith that when it comes to Hawai'i's future, we all share the same goal.

Here are some of the key recommendations:

• Improve certainty and predictability in the review system. Environmental review is most effective when agencies are faced with discretionary decisions, which is the ability to make a judgment or impose conditions in reviewing a proposed project, so that they can make an informed decision. Conversely, there's general agreement that ministerial approvals which involve an applicant meeting fixed standards, such as building permits and utility hook-ups, should not undergo environmental review. Under the working group's proposal, environmental review would only be required for (1) the use of state or county lands or funds by an agency and (2) the issuance of a discretionary approval to an agency or a person for an action that may have adverse environmental effects. A new, transparent system would be created to determine if environmental review is needed. Class 1 would be those projects that require a discretionary approval for which the action may have adverse environmental effects and therefore require an environmental assessment or impact statement, unless they are deemed exempt by law. Class 2 would be those discretionary approvals for which the proposed action has no likely adverse environmental effects. Class 3 would be ministerial approvals where no review is needed as disclosed in the original environmental assessment or statement.

• Improve the public's ability to access information. All environmental review documents would be posted on the Office of Environmental Quality Control's Web site. In addition, all subsequent permits and approvals for any project that triggered an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement would be posted to enable the public to monitor and better understand the development process. A written summary of the outcome of the environmental review process would also be prepared by the agency approving the EA or EIS and posted on the OEQC Web site.

• Improve the ability of the OEQC to do its job. The OEQC would be moved to the governor's office. The membership of its citizens' advisory board, the Environmental Council, would be reduced from 15 to 9, and the cooperation and coordination between the OEQC and the EC would be improved. In addition, a special fund would be established to generate revenue for a limited five-year period during which the office would upgrade its computer system and technical ability to convert to a paperless, Web-based system.

While the working group refined the UH recommendations, the process of reforming our environmental review laws has just begun. The public now has an opportunity to review their efforts; the recommendations are available at HawaiiEISstu dy.blogspot.com. Given the time left in the 2010 session, it's unlikely we'll pass any revisions. However, I see this as an opportunity to gather additional public input so that we can get needed improvements passed next year. As with smart planning, I'm dedicated to measuring twice and cutting once.