Conservation Groups Sue Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative Over Seabird Deaths

Power lines contribute to 75 percent decline in Newell's shearwaters


David Henkin, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436
Maka’ala Ka’aumoana, Hui Ho’omalu i Ka ‘Aina, (808) 346-5458
Don Heacock, Conservation Council for Hawai’i, (808) 645-0532
Peter Galvin, Center for Biological Diversity, (707) 986-2600
George Wallace, American Bird Conservancy, (540) 253-5780

Four conservation groups are suing Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) for violating the Endangered Species Act by killing rare native seabirds without a permit.

The complaint, filed in Hawai’i’s federal district court last Wednesday, March 24, 2010, says the electric utility’s illegal actions "bear substantial responsibility" for the crash of the Newell’s shearwater population on Kaua’i, which declined 75 percent between 1993 and 2008.

The suit, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Hui Ho’omalu I Ka ‘Aina, Conservation Council for Hawai’i, the Center for Biological Diversity, and American Bird Conservancy, seeks to protect threatened Newell’s shearwaters and endangered Hawaiian petrels from death and injury from KIUC’s 1,145 miles of power lines and 3,100 streetlights.

The seabirds, which nest only in Hawai’i, are killed or injured during collisions with power lines strung across their river valley flyways. They also are attracted to and disoriented by lights, often with fatal consequences.

"Thousands of Kaua’i’s native seabirds have perished needlessly because KIUC has refused to take common sense steps to protect them," said Maka’ala Ka’aumoana of Hui Ho’omalu I Ka ‘Äina, a Kaua’i-based advocacy group.

In 1995, experts retained by KIUC’s predecessor, Kaua’i Electric, published a report identifying measures — such as lowering or undergrounding power lines in key flyways — that are vital to save the Newell’s shearwater and Hawaiian petrel. In the intervening 15 years, the utility has failed to implement any of the report’s key recommendations.

"When KIUC purchased the utility in 2002, it knew exactly what needed to be done to comply with the law and save Kaua’i’s imperiled seabirds," said George Wallace of American Bird Conservancy. "KIUC can’t claim ignorance to justify its continued, blatant violations of the Endangered Species Act."

On January 20, 2010, the groups notified KIUC of its Endangered Species Act violations in the hope of resolving the matter out of court. "We urged KIUC to commit to taking the reasonable steps needed to stop the unsustainable slaughter of shearwaters and petrels," said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. "The bottom line is that KIUC had no interest in making that commitment, leaving us with no choice but to head to court to save the birds."

In a filing with the State of Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife last year, KIUC admitted that its power lines, streetlights and other facilities kill more than 120 Newell’s shearwaters and Hawaiian petrels each year, including shearwater chicks that starve to death in their nests after their parents are killed.

KIUC also estimated that its streetlights bring down an additional 54 Newell’s fledglings each year. Once grounded, the birds are subject to predation by dogs and cats, being hit by a car, or dying from dehydration and starvation.

"The Newell’s population has crashed and is now extremely vulnerable," said Don Heacock, a Kaua’i-based biologist and member of Conservation Council for Hawai’i. "KIUC needs to supply power in a sustainable, ecologically safe manner."

"If KIUC were complying with the law, it would have to bring the number of birds killed each year way down and also take steps to offset any harm to birds it couldn’t avoid," Henkin explained. "While KIUC has been dragging its feet and promising to come into compliance, the Newell’s shearwater population has spiraled downward."

"It’s long past time for KIUC to take responsibility for its actions and do right by Kaua’i’s imperiled seabirds," said Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity.

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