Bird Deaths May Trigger Lawsuit Against Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative
Four citizen groups advised Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) today of their intent to sue over its failure to prevent the continuing deaths of rare native seabirds.
Hui Ho'omalu i Ka 'Aina, Conservation Council for Hawai'i, the Center for Biological Diversity and the American Bird Conservancy, represented by Earthjustice, sent notice to the electric utility company that its long-standing refusal to implement measures to protect Hawaiian petrels and Newell's shearwaters from fatal collisions with its power lines violates the Endangered Species Act.
"Because KIUC has refused to modify its power lines to minimize bird strikes, literally thousands of critically imperiled seabirds have died needlessly," said Kaua'i resident and biologist Don Heacock, a member of Conservation Council for Hawai'i (CCH). "Year after year, I've picked up dozens upon dozens of shearwaters -- injured or already dead–under KIUC's lines."
Newell's shearwaters, which were listed as a threatened species in 1975, are endemic to (found only in) Hawai'i, with the majority of birds nesting on Kaua'i. A recent study found the shearwater population on Kaua'i had crashed 75 percent in just 15 years.
"Since ancient times, Hawaiian fishermen have relied on the 'a'o (Newell's shearwater) to help them find fish," said Kaua'i fisherman Jeff Chandler of Hui Ho'omalu i Ka 'Aina. "They're an important part of our culture. At the rate KIUC is going, the 'a'o could be totally wiped out."
Collisions with KIUC's power lines constitute the single largest source of seabird mortality from human activities on Kaua'i. By its own admission, KIUC's operations annually kill 125 shearwaters and injure another 55 birds, which likely die later from their injuries.
"We simply can't afford to lose another 180 shearwaters each year," said Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity. "In the 1990's, the utility was killing about 400 imperiled seabirds annually. The decline in deaths is due solely to the fact that, largely because of the utility's operations, there are now fewer shearwaters left on Kaua'i to kill, not that KIUC has taken effective measures to reduce its toll on seabirds."
In 1995, a study funded by KIUC's predecessor -- Kaua'i Electric -- and carried out by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) identified common-sense measures to reduce the number of critically imperiled seabirds that power lines kill and injure. Those measures include reducing the height of utility poles, shielding lines with rows of trees, attaching lines to the sides of bridges in key river valley fly-ways, and switching from a vertical array of wires to a more traditional T configuration. Conservationists and cultural practitioners decry KIUC's stubborn refusal to implement those measures.
"When KIUC took over Kaua'i Electric in 2002, it should have had a plan to bring the company's operations into compliance with the Endangered Species Act, just as it would provide for any other necessary infrastructure repair or upgrade," said the American Bird Conservancy's George Wallace. "It didn't, and the Newell's shearwater and Hawaiian petrel are now suffering for KIUC's recklessness."
"Since each bird killed is a separate violation of the Endangered Species Act, with each violation subject to a fine of $50,000, KIUC could face millions of dollars in fines because of its illegal operations," said Earthjustice staff attorney David Henkin, who represents the groups. "That not good for the birds, or KIUC's shareholders. We urge KIUC to sit down with us to figure out a reasonable, prompt schedule to put in place the measures the experts have identified as vital to reduce the slaughter of seabirds in KIUC's power lines. If KIUC continues to drag its feet, we'll see them in court."
"Like everyone, I'm concerned about my electricity bill, but it's not pono (morally correct) for KIUC to ignore its kuleana (responsibility) to protect Kaua'i's native seabirds," said the Hui's Chandler. "All these years, KIUC should have been trying to find ways to address the problem, rather than hire high-priced lawyers to delay doing anything while the birds died."
"We're doing what KIUC should've been doing all along, meeting with Hawai'i's congressional delegation to try to get federal funding to implement vitally needed conservation measures to cut down on the number of seabird deaths and help these ecologically, economically and culturally important seabird populations recover so that they can be taken off the endangered species list," added CCH's Heacock.