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Court: County streetlight project violated state environmental law

Groups filed suit over fixtures, saying they posed threat to wildlife

A hawksbill hatchling emerges from the nest and heads to the ocean on a South Maui beach in 2017. Wildlife advocates are pushing for the county to install streetlights with reduced blue-white light that they say causes disorientation to sea turtles, birds and other creatures. AIMEE LEMIEUX photo

Wildlife advocates who sued Maui County over harmful streetlights earned a partial victory Monday after an environmental court judge ruled that the county violated state law by failing to conduct an environmental review before installing the fixtures.

Hawaii Wildlife Fund and the Conservation Council for Hawaii filed a lawsuit against the county in February 2019 to stop the installation of LED lights in 4,800 streetlight fixtures, which the groups said would disorient sea turtles, birds and other wildlife.

On Monday, the court ruled that the county Public Works Department violated the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act by signing a contract committing $1.9 million toward the streetlights project without first considering the environmental impacts, and then exempting the project from the act after installations began, according to a news release from the plaintiffs.

“What we’re asking the county to do right now is restore the status quo, to reduce the blue light to at least as low as it was before, just so that environmental review can take place before a clean slate,” said Kylie Wager Cruz, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing the plaintiffs.

The two environmental groups, however, are still awaiting a decision on their request that the county install filters on the 947 lights that have already been installed. Wager Cruz said that they will go to trial to present witnesses and evidence; because it’s a civil case, it will be decided by a judge and not a jury. She said they will likely learn in a week or so when the trial will take place.

“What we have to establish is that the streetlights caused irreparable harm and that installing the filters is in the public interest,” she explained.

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

Maui County spokesman Chris Sugidono said Tuesday that “the county cannot comment on pending litigation.”

MECO spokeswoman Shayna Decker said Tuesday evening that the utility was “in the process of looking into the ruling.”

The LED streetlight fixtures were slated for installation starting in November 2018. The first phase included 1,889 fixtures along roadways in Kahului, Wailuku, Waiehu, Kahakuloa, Kailua to Hana and Olowalu to Lahaina.

A second phase of 2,931 fixtures was scheduled to start in early 2019, covering West Maui, Maalaea to Makena, Upcountry, Haiku, Kuau, Spreckelsville, Molokai and Lanai.

Coastal locations like West and South Maui were the areas that the two groups were most concerned about when they filed their lawsuit. They pointed out that for years, wildlife experts and community members have warned of the dangers that streetlights that emit a high amount of short-wavelength, blue-white light can pose to wildlife. Seabirds will circle bright, blue-white lights until they fall to the ground from exhaustion or crash into nearby buildings. Adult turtles can get diverted from their nests, while hatchlings trying to reach the ocean can get distracted by the light.

“The lights that remain to be installed are all along the Kaanapali and west side shores, and also in South Maui along Kihei and Wailea,” Wager Cruz said. “Both of those areas, in addition to areas already installed, that’s where there are turtle nesting beaches and seabird fallout in the past.”

Hannah Bernard, executive director and co-founder of Hawaii Wildlife Fund, said that several hawksbill hatchlings were found crushed on North Kihei Road in 2009, and conservationists feared that streetlights — the only source of light in the area — were to blame.

Because of her longtime work with sea turtles, Bernard has long been an advocate for wildlife-friendly lighting. She said that it’s not a new issue — Hawaii Wildlife Fund was doing an educational campaign even back in the late ’90s, and Bernard served on a lighting committee created by Maui County Council Member Mike Molina in the early 2000s. They came up with guidelines that favored high-pressure sodium lighting that gives off an amber glow.

Bernard said she’s not against LED lights, which she knows can save costs and energy. She just wants them to be installed properly, with filters or other measures that take into account the impact to wildlife. Alternative types of lighting have been installed in places like Hawaii island, she said.

“That’s why we have environmental laws, so that we can take the time to evaluate the environmental impacts rather than go forward and find out after the fact,” Bernard said. “If they had done the environmental review first and it was found they would impact wildlife, we could’ve required that the filters be included in the purchase.”

Under a court-ordered stipulation filed in December, before the county can proceed with the streetlights project, it must first complete the public environmental review process mandated by HEPA, starting with an environmental assessment, according to the news release.

“While I’m happy that the environmental court upheld the letter and intent of HEPA, I am dismayed that we had to resort to a lawsuit — once again — as we did in the Lahaina injection well case, to get the county to comply with our environmental protection laws,” Bernard said. “Our way of life, our quality of life and our economy all depend on a healthy environment. Iit makes no sense for our county to continue to find ways to degrade it.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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