Environmental exemptions for public projects dubious By Cynthia Oi

Thursday, March 29, 2012 

Under the Sun

Good for Cynthia Thielen. The Windward Oahu representative wasn’t having any of Rep. Sharon Har’s health and safety argument, the mirepoix that’s become the base in the stew of rationalization for legislation the public might find distasteful.

Har was trying to sell the menu of exemptions in a bill that would grant the governor the imperial power to set aside a host of environmental protections and other regulations in the name of economic revitalization.

The exemption power, Har contended, would speed state construction projects, including some to protect public health and safety.

Thielen, a sharp environmental attorney, cut off Har’s warmed-over line.

“Don’t try to hang your hat on health and safety because that doesn’t hold water,” Thielen told Har.

She went on to point out that the governor already has authority to deal with an emergency.

And Abercrombie has shown he has no qualms about using it, ordering removal of nene from the area around Lihue airport and sweeping away environmental rules to allow removal of old military munitions from state property, the latter with no public notice.

Those actions may or may not have been warranted, but the measure Har was trying to sell and similar bills making their way through the Legislature certainly aren’t worthy of becoming law.

The bills’ goals are ostensibly to hasten public works projects to boost the construction segment of the economy by releasing them from environmental review. The governor would choose the projects to be exempted if, in his opinion, they would do little environmental harm.

No doubt the governor is an intelligent man. No doubt he would have a wealth of expertise at hand to help him form an opinion.

Doubt creeps in, however, because the public would not be allowed to challenge an exemption unless the governor allows it.

Doubt crawls deeper because the state Office of Environmental Quality Control would not be able to provide public notice of exempt projects unless the governor allows it.

The bills’ supporters claim that a host of necessary projects is being held up because of environmental procedures, that these vexing rules are delaying ventures that could provide much-needed paychecks for construction workers and are inhibiting the state’s economic recovery.

Scarce are examples of stymied projects as well as how environmental laws have hindered them. The more likely barrier is government’s inability to consider a project and environmental concerns wholly and to do the homework needed to get a project off the ground efficiently.

Economic recovery and environment stewardship are not incompatible objectives. Neither should the public be shut out, particularly since failure or success of any enterprise swings on public support.

Exempting government projects also creates different standards of environment protections for public and private initiatives, an issue that opens the door to embroiling legal challenges no one would welcome.

In passing these bills, what lawmakers and the administration are saying is doing the job is so much humbug. Instead of shouldering responsibility, they would rather stir a recipe that leaves out critical ingredients.


Cynthia Oi can be reached at coi@staradvertiser.com.

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