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Lawsuit Threatened Over Airport Light Impacts on Rare Seabirds

June 16, 2017, 10:47 AM HST (Updated June 16, 2017, 11:28 AM) · 6 Comments
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A hui of conservation groups on Thursday filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Hawai‘i Department of Transportation for failing to prevent bright lighting at state-operated airports and harbors on Kaua‘i, Maui and Lāna‘i from causing injuries and death to three species of critically imperiled seabirds.

Hawaiian petrel chick in its old burrow on the mountain. Photo credit: Andre Raine/Kaua’i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project.

The Newell’s shearwater is a threatened species, and Hawaiian petrels and band-rumped storm petrels in Hawai‘i are endangered species.

The notice was filed by the environmental lawfirm Earthjustice on behalf of Hui Ho‘omalu i Ka ‘Āina, the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The complaint alleges that the department’s failure to protect these native seabirds from harmful operations at its facilities violates the federal Endangered Species Act.

Environmentalists say the birds circle the bright lights until they fall to the ground from exhaustion or crash into nearby buildings. Studies show a catastrophic decline of Newell’s shearwaters on Kauaʻi, down 94% since the 1990s; and a 78% decline in Hawaiian petrels over the same period.

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“Since ancient times, Hawaiian fishermen have looked to the ‘a‘o (Newell’s shearwater) to help them find fish,” said Kaua‘i fisherman Jeff Chandler of Hui Ho‘omalu i Ka ‘Āina, which works to protect cultural and natural resources.

“Fixing the lights so these magnificent seabirds on the brink of extinction aren’t killed is completely feasible,” said Brian Segee, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The groups seek to compel the department to comply with its obligations under the Endangered Species Act to minimize and mitigate harm to the imperiled seabirds by securing incidental take permit coverage of its activities on all three islands. The Act requires that citizens provide 60 days advance notice before filing a lawsuit to address illegal activities.

“Time is running out for these rare and culturally important seabirds,” said David Henkin, an Earthjustice attorney representing the groups.

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