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Lawsuit filed against county says seabirds, turtles put at risk by replacement streetlights

The Maui News

Two environmental groups have filed suit to block the replacement of about 4,800 streetlight fixtures across Maui County with new LED fixtures, which the groups say will pose a threat to seabirds and sea turtles.

The Hawaii Wildlife Fund and Conservation Council for Hawaii, represented by Earthjustice, filed the suit Tuesday, saying that the county Department of Public Works violated the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act by moving forward with the project, along with Maui Electric Co., without the legally mandated environmental review.

The Public Works Department, Director David Goode, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino and MECO have all been named in the complaint.

For years, the complaint says, wildlife experts and community members have been warning the county that streetlights with a high blue light content can harm imperiled seabirds and sea turtles. Instead, they’ve proposed other LED bulbs that filter out blue light. The complaint says the county ignored the warnings and moved ahead with the project while exempting it from environmental review.

“The County has no excuse for ignoring the harms of its streetlight replacement project on imperiled species, as well as the superior alternatives that are available,” said Kylie Wager Cruz, an attorney in Earthjustice’s Hawaii office. “Hawaii island already uses LED bulbs that filter out blue light, avoiding needless harm to seabirds and turtles. It is extremely irresponsible, not to mention blatantly illegal, for the county to try to dodge the mandated environmental review process, which is designed to help the county find more environmentally responsible ways to get the job done.”

Seabirds like the endangered Hawaiian petrel and the threatened Newell’s shearwater can be attracted to and disoriented by bright lights, circling them until they fall to the ground from exhaustion or crash into nearby buildings, according to the groups. Once on the ground, the seabirds are vulnerable to being run over by cars and predation by pets and feral animals.

“The Hawaiian petrel is critically endangered, with bright lights one of the biggest culprits in its decline,” said Julie Leialoha, interim executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii. “The largest remaining colonies of Hawaiian petrels in the world are on Lanai and Maui. If we don’t protect them here and now, we risk losing this species forever.”

The new LED lights also harm critically endangered hawksbill and green sea turtles, which nest at beaches in Maui County. Newly hatched turtles can be drawn to the lights, distracting them from reaching the protection of the ocean and leaving them vulnerable to predation and vehicle strikes. Bright lights can also divert adult turtles from laying eggs on the beach in the first place.

“A single bright light can kill hundreds of turtle hatchlings,” said Hannah Bernard, executive director and co-founder of Hawaii Wildlife Fund. “Because hawksbills are so rare, we simply can’t afford to allow the streetlights project to skate by without any environmental review.”

Maui County spokesman Brian Perry said Wednesday that the county had not yet been served with the complaint and thus was “unable to respond with any specificity to any of the allegations.” Perry said that Maui County is replacing streetlights along with other counties and the state Department of Transportation.

“This replacement is being performed to provide greater energy efficiency and safety at a cost savings to our taxpayers and electric ratepayers,” Perry said. “In making these types of decisions, Maui County follows the environmental review process, as well as other applicable rules and laws.”

Regarding the review process, Perry said the county filed for an exemption, “which is a ministerial process in accordance with our Office of Environmental Quality Control exemption list provisions.”

He declined to comment further because of the pending litigation.

The county hopes to complete the project by the end of the year.

MECO spokeswoman Sayble Bissen said Wednesday afternoon that the company was still reviewing the complaint.