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Lawsuit Seeks to Block LED Streetlights on Maui

February 14, 2019, 6:17 AM HST · Updated February 14, 12:47 PM
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Before and After Photos from light demonstration project. PC: file Maui Electric Company.

Environmental groups Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund and Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to block the replacement of approximately 4,800 streetlight fixtures across Maui County with new LED fixtures.

The lawsuit claims that the lights threaten to kill or injure critically imperiled seabirds and sea turtles.

The groups claim the County of Maui Department of Public Works violated the Hawai‘i Environmental Policy Act by moving forward with the project, in conjunction with Maui Electric Company, alleging it was done without the legally mandated environmental review.

In response to a lawsuit Maui County spokesman Brian Perry issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon saying that Maui County had not yet been served with the complaint in this matter. As such, he said, the county is “unable to respond with any specificity to any of the allegations.”

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However, he said, “along with the other counties and the state Department of Transportation, Maui County and Maui Electric Co. are replacing old streetlights with LED streetlights.”

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

Maui Electric announced plans in November to transition the streetlights.  The first phase of the project was to include approximately 1,889 fixtures along various roads in Kahului, Wailuku, Waiehu, Kahakuloa, Kailua to Hāna, and Olowalu to Lahaina until February 2019.

The environmental groups say 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. Once on the ground, the seabirds are vulnerable to getting run over by cars and predation by pets and feral animals, according to the groups.

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

The lawsuit also claims the new LED lights 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, according to the groups. Bright lights can divert adult turtles from laying eggs on Maui County’s beaches in the first place, the suit claims.

“A single bright light can kill hundreds of turtle hatchlings,” said Hannah Bernard, Executive Director and Co-founder of Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund. “Because hawksbills are so rare, we simply can’t afford to allow the streetlights project to skate by without any 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 Hawai‘i office. “Hawai‘i 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.”

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