The Maui County Department of Public Works violated state law by failing to conduct environmental review for a streetlights project that threatens harm to Maui’s imperiled seabirds and sea turtles, the environmental court ruled yesterday. The ruling comes one year after Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund and Conservation Council for Hawaiʻi, represented by Earthjustice, brought suit to block the replacement of approximately 4,800 streetlight fixtures across the county with new light-emitting diode (LED) fixtures that emit a high amount of short-wavelength, blue-white light, which increases the risk of seabird fallout and sea turtle disorientation.
The court ruled that the county violated the Hawaiʻi Environmental Policy Act (HEPA) by signing a contract committing $1.9 million toward the streetlights project without first considering the environmental impacts, and by hastily exempting the project from HEPA after installations began.
“The county gave no thought to the law or environmental impacts before plowing forward full-speed with the streetlights project,” said Earthjustice attorney Kylie Wager Cruz. “This is precisely the type of reckless decision-making that our environmental review laws were designed to prevent.”
For years, wildlife experts and community members warned the county that streetlights that emit a high amount of blue light can harm imperiled seabirds and sea turtles and urged the county to use LED fixtures that filter out blue light, like the streetlights used on Hawaiʻi Island. Seabirds like the endangered Hawaiian petrel and the threatened Newell’s shearwater will circle bright, blue-white lights until they fall to the ground from exhaustion or crash into nearby buildings. This type of lighting also disorients the critically endangered hawksbill turtle and threatened green sea turtle, distracting hatchlings from reaching the ocean and diverting adult turtles from nesting sites.
“While I’m happy that the environmental court upheld the letter and intent of HEPA, I am dismayed that we had to resort to a lawsuit — once again — as we did in the Lahaina injection well case, to get the county to comply with our environmental protection laws,” said Hannah Bernard, Executive Director and Co-founder of Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund. “Our way of life, our quality of life, and our economy all depend on a healthy environment, it makes no sense for our county to continue to find ways to degrade it.”
“The county should be taking every precaution to safeguard Hawaiʻi’s wildlife, especially species that are on the brink of extinction,” said Conservation Council for Hawaiʻi Board Member Julie Leialoha. “The Hawaiian petrel is critically endangered, with bright lights one of the biggest culprits in its decline. The number of documented casualties of seabirds and fledglings during the annual fall out season is too high for the county to simply ignore.”
Under a court-ordered stipulation finalized in December 2019, before the county can proceed with the streetlights project, it must first complete the public environmental review process mandated by HEPA, beginning with an environmental assessment. The court is expected to address later this year the citizen groups’ further request for a court order mandating the installation of filters to reduce blue light on the 947 LED streetlights that were illegally installed without any environmental review.