• Oahu Faces a Future With Far Fewer Beaches

    · By Sophie Cocke

    Editor’s Note: Do you have beach erosion pics you’d like to share, old or new? Tweet them to @civilbeat, using the hashtag #civilbeach or via Facebook https://www.facebook.com/civilbeat.

    On a typical Saturday, surfers precariously scale a seawall at Kewalo Basin and propel themselves into the ocean, sunbathers squeeze onto a narrow ribbon of sand along Kahala Beach that only exists at low tide, and tourists pack a shrinking plot of sand fronting the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki held in place only by an artificial groin.

    Oahu has lost one-fourth of its beaches and of those remaining, about 70 percent are eroding. If state and county officials don’t start working to conserve what’s left of the sandy shoreline, most of the island’s beaches could disappear by the end of the century, say scientists. 

    “I think by mid-century we are looking at a future where we are down to just a handful of healthy beaches and by the end of the century those will be disappearing, or gone already,” said Chip Fletcher, a coastal geologist and associate dean at the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science Technology, who is one of the state’s leading experts on beach erosion. 

    Slide the red button at the the bottom left of the photo to watch the disappearance of Lanikai Beach between 1967 and the present. The 1967 photo is from the city’s archives; Civil Beat used a drone to photograph the same exact location 48 years later. 

    Beachfront property owners erected illegal seawalls in

  • Why Did the City Approve a New Seawall for a Kahala Property After the State Ordered It Removed?

    · By Sophie Cocke

    A wealthy South Korean businessman who bought two Kahala beachfront properties was required to tear out an illegal seawall that was encroaching on the public beach. But the city has since given Lee Kun-hee, the billionaire chairman of South Korea’s Samsung Group, permission to erect a new wall just mauka of the state’s certified shoreline, which scientists say will exacerbate beach erosion.

    Critics say the city approval also signals a destructive trend when it comes to allowing seawalls and other structures that harden the shoreline, effectively expanding a loophole in the law that allows property owners to claim hardship when arguing for a protective wall.

    Usually, property owners invoke the hardship clause when the ocean is threatening their homes. In this case, the plot is currently vacant.

    “It’s such a new precedent for environmental damage,” said Chip Fletcher, a coastal geologist and associate dean at the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science Technology, who has become one of the state’s leading experts on beach erosion.

    He called the decision, unanimously approved by the Honolulu City Council, “crazy.”

    Samsung Chair Lee Kun-hee’s new Kahala property where he plans to build a $20 million luxury compound.

    Sophie Cocke/Civil Beat

    Officials at the Department of Planning and Permitting, which recommended to the City Council that the seawall be approved, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

    Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who represents the area, didn’t return a call for comment.

    Luxury Kahala Compound

    Lee is planning to spend up to $20 million to build a 16,000-square-foot luxury home, staff and guest

  • Feds Give OK to NextEra Purchase of Hawaiian Electric

    · By Sophie Cocke

    The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved the planned acquisition of Hawaiian Electric Industries by Florida based-NextEra Energy, according to a joint press release issued by the two companies on Monday.

    NextEra announced in December that it was planning to purchase Hawaii’s major electric utility as part of a $4.3 billion deal.

    The purchase includes Hawaiian Electric Co. on Oahu, Hawaii Electric Light Co. on the Big Island and Maui Electric Co., which serves Maui, Lanai and Molokai.

    As part of the deal, American Savings Bank, a subsidiary of Hawaiian Electric Industries, will be spun off into an independent company.

    Jim Robo, chairman and CEO of NextEra Energy, stands beside Connie Lau, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric Industries, at a press conference announcing the $4.3 billion merger.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    The purchase still has to be approved by Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission and HEI shareholders. The PUC has indicated that it may not rule on the deal until the middle of next year. Meanwhile, more than two dozen entities, including solar trade groups, county and state agencies and other energy companies have intervened in the quasi-judicial proceedings taking place before the PUC.

    “Approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission represents a significant step toward the completion of our merger,” Jim Robo, chairman and chief executive officer of NextEra Energy, said in a statement. “Through our partnership, we will apply our combined expertise and resources to deliver significant savings and value to Hawaiian Electric customers. We will continue to work closely with our

  • House Committee Kills Homeless Bill of Rights

    · By Sophie Cocke

    The House Committee on Human Services deferred a bill on Tuesday that would create a “Houseless Bill of Rights,” designed to ensure homeless would be protected from discrimination and afforded certain rights, such as access to restrooms, public spaces, the ability to vote and to sleep in a legally parked car.

    The measure had support from homeless advocates, while the attorney general’s office expressed legal concerns about some aspects of the bill. For instance, state law prohibits people from sleeping or living in their cars — contradicting the bill of rights and requiring the current law to be rescinded.

    Tents line the sidewalks at Ohe Street near Waterfront Park in Kakaako.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    Similar measures have been proposed in California, Colorado and Oregon to combat what some see as the increasing criminalization of homelessness.

    In recent months, Honolulu has passed controversial laws that ban sitting and lying on certain sidewalks and pedestrian malls throughout Oahu and ramped up the enforcement of nuisance laws in an attempt prod homeless out of tourist and business districts and into shelters.

    Kathryn Xian, a homeless advocate and executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, expressed disappointment after the House committee vote.

    “The delay of these rights for our most vulnerable in our community (the houseless) leave the city enabled to introduce and pass even more laws criminalizing the houseless,” she said in email to lawmakers and the media.

    Other measures aimed at protecting the homeless are set to be heard in the Legislature on Thursday.

  • Man Dies In Police Custody After Being Tased, Pepper Sprayed

    · By Sophie Cocke

    A man died on Monday night after being tased, pepper sprayed and restrained by Honolulu police officers, according to a Honolulu Police Department press release.

    The man, whose name was not released, was wearing dark-colored clothing, running in the middle of the roadway and acting erratically in an area of King Street fronting Iolani Palace, according to police.

    Honolulu Police Department officers along Kalakaua Avenue during the Honolulu Festival parade earlier this month.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    “The male refused to leave the roadway, continuously running away and evading the officers as they approached him.  OC pepper spray was used but was ineffective as the male continued to remain on the roadway,” according to the release. “An electric gun was deployed twice but was also ineffective.  The male tripped and fell while trying to run away, at which time officers were able to gain control of the combative male and placed him under arrest.  The male was escorted to the sidewalk when he suddenly became unresponsive.”

    The man was later taken to Queens Medical Center in an ambulance where police say he died.

    It’s not clear what caused the man’s death. Rade Vanic, a captain with the Honolulu Police Department, said no further details about the circumstances surrounding the death are being released at this time.

    Since 1994, Hawaii police have killed at least 36 people and sent thousands more to local emergency rooms with various injuries, according to past Civil Beat reporting.

  • State Study: Possible Sand Island Homeless Camp Site is Safe

    · By Sophie Cocke

    Soil tests on an empty plot of land on Sand Island where Mayor Kirk Caldwell has proposed relocating up to 100 homeless people indicate that the area is safe for human habitation, according to Fenix Grange, a supervisor in the Hawaii Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office.

    The department tested the soil for lead, arsenic, dioxins, petroleum products and other contaminants after past reports in the vicinity of the proposed site found elevated levels of chemicals.

    The new samples showed trace levels of a number of contaminants, including lead and arsenic, but they were well below the most conservative threshold that would spark health concerns, said Grange.

    “At this point, given the data that we have now, it certainly looks like the surface soils are clean and safe for residential use,” she said.

    The Sand Island site where the City of Honolulu has proposed a Housing First Transition Center.

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat

    The results may reinvigorate Caldwell’s plan for a tent facility that would include restrooms, shuttle service to town, storage areas and security. The mayor announced plans for the homeless facility in August and had planned to have it operational by the end of last year.

    The administration began having second thoughts about the site after health officials raised concerns about potential contamination. The city was facing as much as $25,000 in costs to test the soil. This was later covered by federal funds allocated to the Health Department by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Health officials had also suggested that the site

  • Will Hawaii Finally Become Last State to Ban New Cesspools?

    · By Sophie Cocke

    Concerned that raw sewage is contaminating coastal waters and threatening drinking water supplies, lawmakers have advanced two bills that would ban new cesspools and provide tax credits to help homeowners who already have cesspools convert to other systems.

    Hawaii has long been the only state that allows new cesspools, holes in the ground that discharge raw, untreated waste.

    House Bill 1141, which would ban new cesspools as well as new structures tied to existing cesspools beginning in 2017, and House Bill 1140, which affords homeowners a yet-to-be-defined refundable income tax credit, have both passed the House and crossed over to the Senate for deliberation. The credits would help homeowners convert to septic tanks or an aerobic treatment unit, or connect to a county sewage system.

    Signs warn the public to keep out of the water at Kahaluu Lagoon leading into Kaneohe Bay last November after high levels of bacteria associated with sewage were detected. Health officials suspect that about 700 cesspools in the area were the likely cause.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    The legislation follows a failed effort by Hawaii Department of Health officials to get Gov. Neil Abercrombie to sign new administrative rules before he left office at the beginning of last December that would have made similar changes.

    In addition to banning new cesspools, the Health Department rules would also require property owners to convert cesspools to septic tanks within a year of a home being sold.

    The rules could still be signed by Gov.

  • Saving Waikiki Beach — At Least for Now

    · By Sophie Cocke

    Tourists in bikinis and board shorts packed onto the narrow strip of sand fronting the iconic Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider hotels on a recent weekday. Dozens of novice surfers lurched to catch waist-high waves in the turquoise water.

    It’s a scene that has played out for decades at the world-famous beach that lures several million people a year to Waikiki, generating about 42 percent of the state’s visitor industry revenue.

    But the beach stretching to the Kuhio Beach Basin, where a bronze statute of famous surfer Duke Kahanamoku welcomes visitors with outstretched arms, is in danger of disappearing.

    A walkway overlooking a beach wall near the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    A crumbling, century-old stone wall that juts out from the Royal Hawaiian is in imminent danger of collapsing, say scientists. The groin is the sole reason sand remains along this main stretch of Waikiki Beach.

    Without it, the beach in front of the Royal Hawaiian would likely disappear in a matter of days, said Dolan Eversole, a scientist with the University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant program. It would take several months to a year for the rest of the stretch of sand to erode.

    This portion of the beach fronting the Royal Hawaiian has already disappeared due to a persistent southwesterly swell.

    Courtesy Waikiki Improvement Association

    Most visitors may not know it, but Waikiki Beach is almost entirely man-made. It has had erosion problems

  • Women In Renewable Energy Ban the Press

    · By Sophie Cocke

    Civil Beat was eager Friday morning to report what Gov. David Ige and newly appointed Cabinet members had to say about the direction of Hawaii’s energy policy.

    Women in Renewable Energy, a local nonprofit, was hosting a forum at The Plaza Club with Ige, Luis Salaveria, the new director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and Ford Fuchigami, the new director of the Department of Transportation.

    Officials were there to “share their plans for Hawaii’s clean energy future.” Moderating the event was Asia Yeary of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    Screenshot, The Plaza Club

    Screenshot, The Plaza Club

    It’s a particularly interesting time for the state with the pending sale of Hawaiian Electric Co. to Florida-based NextEra Energy, squabbles over the future of rooftop solar and a slew of utility-scale renewable energy projects poised to dot the Oahu landscape. And the forum seemed like a good opportunity to learn more about the views of some of our top government officials.

    However, it was not to be. Yvette Maskrey, a WiRE board member and president of Honeywell International, was in the midst of announcing Ige to a room of attendees feasting on breakfast, when she apparently spotted a Civil Beat reporter in the doorway and decided to take the time to review the forum’s press policy, or no press policy, rather.

    In the interest of cultivating an “open” discussion, she said press are banned from events hosted by Women in

  • Caldwell Administration Stresses Fiscal Austerity in 2016

    · By Sophie Cocke

    Mayor Kirk Caldwell is emphasizing fiscal austerity in his 2016 fiscal year budget, which includes reductions in capital spending and no new taxes or fees.

    “The budget is a no frills budget,” said city Managing Director Roy Amemiya, who presented the budget in the mayor’s absence. Caldwell is out of town on a personal trip.

    The $2.3 billion operating budget represents a 6.5 percent, or $139 million, increase in spending from last year. The bulk of that represents increases in non-discretionary costs, debt service and the mayor’s proposal to increase the funding deposited into a fund reserved for emergencies.

    Mayor Kirk Caldwell responds to questions during joint a legislative hearing in January.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    The city’s capital budget has been slashed from $709 million for the 2015 fiscal year to $494 million for the upcoming year in order to reduce debt service payments and prepare for added rail costs.

    The city is facing a roughly $1 billion funding shortfall for the rail project. The cost of the project was initially pegged at $5.2 billion, but cost overruns have been mounting. While the the mayor lobbies the Legislature and top state officials to extend a surcharge on the General Excise Tax to fund the project, rail officials are asking the City Council to float $350 million worth of city bonds to help with short-term financing.

    “To best position itself for this, the city needs to rein in spending and build prudent levels of

  • Living Hawaii: How Come Our Electric Bills Are Still So High?

    · By Sophie Cocke

    The price of oil has plummeted by more than 50 percent since July of 2014, falling to its lowest point in six years and buoying the hopes of cash-strapped residents that they will see major reductions in their electricity bills.

    But as statements covering February power usage begin rolling out, those residents may be disappointed by the relatively moderate dip in rates. Hawaiian Electric customers on Oahu, the Big Island and Maui will still be paying two to three times the national average for electricity.

    We already use 38 percent less electricity than the average American household, but the latest cost figures suggest that it’s still not time to liberally crank the air conditioning or stop cooking with kiawe.

    On Oahu, a typical residential bill for 600 kilowatt hours of electricity will only be 18 percent cheaper than last July, falling to $177.45 from $217.24. 

    A bill for the same amount of energy on the mainland is about $72 per month.

    Hawaii electricity rates were similar to other states in the 1990s, but have since soared. While other states switched to cheaper natural gas and coal, Hawaii remained heavily dependent on oil. (Chart courtesy of Blue Planet Foundation)

    This is in spite of the fact that crude oil prices, which generally track with prices in Hawaii, fell from $105 a barrel in July to $47 in January, a 55 percent drop. Oil powers about 70 percent of the state’s electricity.

    On Maui, the decline is even smaller, with the

  • Despite City’s Sit-Lie Crackdown, Homeless Aren’t Moving Into Shelters

    · By Sophie Cocke

    Kevin sat amid the heat, smog and noise that envelops the H-1 underpass on Harding Avenue in Kaimuki, surrounded by his bike, a few bags of belongings and glass bottles he’s collected for recycling, as cars sped by.

    He’s one of an increasing number of homeless people who can be seen lining the sidewalk under the bridge since a series of laws banning sitting and lying on sidewalks and pedestrian malls went into effect in recent months throughout highly visible tourist and business districts on Oahu.

    The laws, supported by Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the majority of the Honolulu City Council, are aimed at prodding people like Kevin into shelters where they can get needed services. The measures are also intended to move them out of view of tourists and shop owners who have complained that they are hurting business.  

    A tarp covers a man as he rests along Kalakaua Avenue.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    Instead, the laws appear to be pushing the homeless not into shelters, but less visible areas of Oahu, like under the H-1 bridge.

    Kevin, who declined to give his last name, says he’s never considered trying to get into a shelter because of all the rules and “bad things” he’s heard about them.

    “I don’t like being outside. I’m dirty. My fingernails are dirty,” he said, holding up his smudged hands that revealed blackened nails. “I’m not happy. But I do feel free.”

    Kevin appears to be

  • Ormat Awarded Big Island Geothermal Contract

    · By Sophie Cocke

    Hawaii Electric Light Co. has selected Ormat Technologies to provide an additional 25-megawatts of geothermal energy to the Big Island.

    The company, with headquarters in Reno, Nevada, already operates the state’s sole geothermal plant, Puna Geothermal Venture.

    Puna Geothermal plant on the Big Island.

    Courtesy of Puna Geothermal Venture

    The selection closes a drawn-out competitive bidding process that the electric utility initiated in November 2012. Companies were asked to resubmit bids after the utility said the proposals came in too high.

    “Ormat was selected based on numerous criteria, including attractive pricing, technical design and capability, financial soundness, as well as commitment to resolving all environmental issues and to working with our Hawai‘i Island communities,” Jay Ignacio, HELCO’s president, said in a press release.

    A formal contract for the energy still needs to be negotiated and submitted to the Public Utilities Commission for review, according to a HELCO spokeswoman.

    More than 47 percent of the Big Island’s electricity is currently generated from renewable resources, including wind, hydro, rooftop solar and geothermal, according to HELCO.

  • Caldwell Vows Not to Run From Rail, Homeless Problems

    · By Sophie Cocke

    Mayor Kirk Caldwell stressed the need to move forward on the Honolulu rail project with an extension of the General Excise Tax during his 2015 State of the City address Tuesday while emphasizing the progress he has made since taking office two years ago on road repaving, park rejuvenation, bike lanes and the homelessness problem.

    With the rail project — the biggest public works project in the state’s history — facing a $900 million shortfall with only two miles of the 20-mile guideway built, Caldwell vowed not to run from the political quagmire.

    “Rail is the big elephant in this very big, outdoor room and we need to talk about it,” Caldwell told an audience of about 150 invited guests who convened on a grassy plot at Foster Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu. “As a politician, I’m not going to run from it, I’m not going to blame anyone, I’m not going to look backwards and say, ‘Why didn’t you do this or that?’ I accept that this is happening under my watch.”

    Mayor Kirk Caldwell delivers the 2015 State of the City address at Foster Botanical Garden on Tuesday.

    Sophie Cocke/Civil Beat

    Caldwell’s remarks came after criticism last month that he was dodging the problem and trying to hand off responsibility to Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Executive Director Dan Grabauskas, a political appointee.

    Caldwell has been lobbying the Legislature and top state officials to extend the half percent surcharge

  • Caldwell to Deliver 2015 State of the City Address

    · By Sophie Cocke

    Mayor Kirk Caldwell will deliver his third annual State of the City address on Tuesday at 8 a.m. at Foster Botanical Garden.

    It’s an invitation-only event, as was the mayor’s first address in 2013.

    The address will be lived streamed on StarAdvertiser.com, KITV.com and KITV Mobile, HawaiiNewsNow.com and the Hawaii News Now mobile app, and at olelo.org/olelo53, according to a press release from the mayor’s office. 

    Last year, the mayor’s speech emphasized his focus on alleviating homelessness, meeting his island-wide road repaving goals and his efforts to create a more bike-friendly city.

    The mayor also touted the city’s legal triumphs over rail opponents, allowing the project to move forward.

    However, this year Caldwell is facing a political hot potato with the rail project as costs have soared, contributing to a $900 million budget shortfall. The mayor has been lobbying state officials to extend the General Excise Tax to pay for the project. Rail officials have warned that the project could run out of cash by this summer.


    Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell at his 2014 State of the City address.

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat