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BY SYDNEY ROSS SINGER – The biggest loophole in environmental protection is about to open even wider in Hawaii if the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has its way. The DLNR wants to expand its exemption lists of what it will do, and will allow to be done by others, without requiring an Environmental Assessment (EA). A meeting of the Environmental Council Exemptions Sub-Committee is currently scheduled for 4/18/2011, 10:00am – 12:00pm, Keoni Ana 3rd Floor, Rm. 302, 1177 Alakea St., Honolulu to review the proposed DLNR exemptions.

The DLNR is requesting approval of its EA exemption lists for Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Emergency Response Actions, Division of Aquatic Resources, Unexploded Ordinance Actions, Department wide exemptions, Division of State Parks, and Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation.

It is important that exemptions be carefully considered before they are granted, since having an EA exemption is like having a Get Out Of Jail Free card. It’s essentially a free pass to do what you want without requiring any public announcement or getting any public input because, presumably, the activity is so obviously insignificant in its environmental and cultural impacts that no EA is needed.

But some of the proposed DLNR exemptions clearly may cause significant environmental impacts, such as:

  • unlimited herbicide and pesticide use;
  • poisoning trees and leaving them to rot in place;
  • unlimited alien and pest species control, which can target any non-native plant or animal;
  • unlimited control of undesirable fish and other aquatic life;
  • conducting releases of aquatic life;
  • installation of rearing pens for cage culture of various freshwater, estuarine and marine fishes, invertebrates and other aquatic organisms.

If these exemptions are approved, these activities can be done without an EA or public comment.

Making matters worse, the public has not been adequately informed about the upcoming Environmental Council’s Exemption Sub-Committee meeting to consider these proposed EA exemptions. Apparently, notice of this meeting was made by email only to persons who had expressed interest in the exemption lists. Notice was not made as has customarily been done through the OEQC’s Environmental Notices, which came out April 8 and made no mention of this meeting.

And if people somehow do find out about the meeting, only some of the proposed exemption lists are available for inspection on the OEQC website, further hampering public review. There is no indication of where these lists can be found for review and comment.

Why should we all be concerned about EA exemptions?

The purpose of an EA is to present a proposed project to the public and government administrators, to determine if it is something that will have negative impacts on the environment or culture, or if it is insignificant and can proceed as proposed. The EA is supposed to discuss the purpose of the project, examine its potential impacts, analyze alternatives to the proposed project, and give an opportunity for the general public to comment.

It also gives the public a method of challenging an EA or EIS. In other words, it provides a mechanism for the public to exercise its right to have a say on what our government does, and what it allows to be done, to the environment and the culture.

Sounds like good public policy, upholding environmental justice.

But there are some loopholes. A big loophole is the granting of exemptions to the EA requirement — activities that are considered so obviously insignificant as to make an EA unnecessary.

It makes sense for some exemptions. We should not need an EA for all government activities, such as clerical work and routine functions. However, once exempted, there will be no environmental review or public input allowed for such activities.

Keep in mind that some exempted activities may be desirable in certain situations. But exempting these activities as a class from requiring an EA means these activities will not be assessed for their potential negative environmental and cultural impacts. No alternatives will be discussed. The public will have no say.

And since EA exemptions are not announced in the OEQC Environmental Notice, the public will not know about these activities until after they are underway, at which point damage will already have been done.

This very important meeting that impacts our environmental rights is scheduled for April 18, but has not been adequately announced to the public. The information to be covered at the meeting is not readily available to the public. And the outcome of the meeting could be a list of activities about which the public will no longer have any say.

The Environmental Council must not block out the public from a process that is meant to protect the public’s right to participate in governmental process and in environmental policymaking. And it must not accept all of the exemptions proposed, some of which have clear potential for environmental and cultural harm.

Please email the Environmental Council at oeqc@doh.hawaii.gov and ask them to postpone the meeting until it is properly announced to the public in the Environmental Notice and until the proposed exemption lists are available on the OEQC website for public review.

Most importantly, please also review the exemption lists and email your comments to the OEQC.

You can see the OEQC exemption list website here

It’s our government and our environment.  Let’s make sure we stay part of the process.

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