BY SYDNEY ROSS SINGER – Environmental review, central to our Hawaii Environmental Policy Act, has become corrupted by profiteers who have made the EA, or “environmental assessment” process expensive and punitive and something the government now wishes to avoid. If the system is to be fixed, we must make EA’s affordable.

The purpose of an EA is to assess the potential impacts, mitigation measures, and alternatives to a proposed project that may have significant environmental or cultural impacts, and to provide the public with an opportunity to comment.

However, preparation of an EA costs between $100,000 – $200,000, according to the DLNR. An EIS can cost much, much more than that.

You will not see these costs addressed in the statutes about EAs and EISs. The laws speak to the need for public review and a full analysis of the potential impacts of a project. Never is it mentioned that compliance with the law could cost a small fortune.

Government agencies, in addition to private entities, may need to prepare an environmental assessment before a project can be started. This costs the government, and the taxpayer, lots of money assessing projects.

So here is the problem. For those wanting to stop a project, a costly EA process can be a boon. For those wanting to start a project, a costly EA process is a bane. And for the government agencies that are required to prepare these EA’s before approving a project, even its own project, the EA process is a pain.

The government’s solution? Exempt as many activities from requiring an EA as possible.

The law allows exemptions from the EA process for activities that are clearly insignificant in their environmental or cultural impacts. Government agencies propose a list of exempted activities to the Environmental Council, which reviews the list and concurs, or not, with the exemptions.

I attended an Environmental Council meeting recently during which the DLNR proposed exempting from an EA the construction of fencing in the forests. While small fences are currently exempted from an EA, the DLNR proposed exempting any size fencing from an EA. The fencing could be miles long and enclose hundreds of thousands of acres, and still it would not require an EA.

The reasoning of the DLNR was that there have already been 51 EA’s for fencing over the years, and each EA costs about $100,000 or more. That’s over $5 million to assess the fencing, in addition to the costs of actually putting up the fencing. And each EA, according to the DLNR, concluded that there would be no significant impacts. Why require more EA’s, the DLNR argued, when all these past EA’s showed no significant impacts?

Some of the Environmental Council members pointed out that large fencing projects do have significant impacts. Recently, for example, hundreds of goats and sheep died of thirst because of a fencing project that kept them from finding water. Another fencing project kept out wild sheep and caused the overgrowth of grasses that resulted in a huge, destructive fire.

It was also pointed out that just because an EA concludes that there will be no significant impacts from the action, it does not mean that there actually will be no significant impacts. Nobody reviews the accuracy of EA predictions.

The DLNR, however, wants to erect fences in the forests. It also wants to allow private entities, such as the Nature Conservancy, to do the same without having to go through a costly review process each time. The point was made clear that EA’s cost too much, and that the public should trust the government to make good decisions without subjecting those decisions to an EA.

The DLNR characterized the EA process as unnecessary, redundant, expensive, and obstructionist. Exemptions are seen as the best way to avoid the red tape and costs. And, according to the DLNR, given the financial crisis currently challenging the government, this seems like the best time to exempt activities from the EA process to allow the government to spend its limited resources on projects without wasting money on endless studies. Why have environmental review and public comments if we could simply trust the government to do the right thing?

Of course, this undermines the letter and intent of the EA law. Exemptions are supposed to be for obviously insignificant activities, not to just avoid the costs of doing an EA. And the public has a right to question the government, which works for us and protects our environment. Public review and participation is considered essential to the environmental protection process, and democracy itself.

Clearly, there are abuses on both sides of the EA issue. Those wanting to stop a project benefit from expensive EAs and EISs, while governments wanting to allow a project benefit from EA exemptions. In both cases, however, the EA process has lost its intent. This means the EA process is not working as the law intended, to the detriment of the public and the environment.

The solution, however, is simple. The source of the problem is the cost of the EA and EIS.

How much should an EA cost? An EA usually contains less than 100 pages. The government takes bids from private firms to prepare the EA. Charging $100,000 for a 100 page document, or $1,000 per page, is a rip off. I was told by the DLNR that a cultural assessment, which needs to be part of the EA, can cost $40,000 by itself.

Obviously, this is the source of the problem. EA preparers know that the law requires an EA, and they charge whatever they can get.

For $100,000 the government agency can hire two full time EA preparer so it does not have to pay exorbitant preparation fees. An efficient worker should be able to prepare an EA within two weeks. One employee should be able to prepare over 20 EA’s per year, especially since the EA is only a report, not an original research project, and can be as short as 30 pages. Repetitive EA’s for similar projects would be even easier to prepare. So for $100,000, the government can use two employees to prepare 40 EA’s per year, all for the price of one EA prepared by a private contractor.

Whether by doing EA preparation in-house or by simply capping how much the government will pay private preparers, the government must do something to make the EA process less a cost issue, and more of what it was meant to be – a public review of potentially significant actions that may impact on the environment and culture.

Let’s not throw away the review process with EA exemptions simply because the process is too expensive. End the abuse, not the process.