DOT Assesses Climate Change Impacts for Honolulu Harbor, Airport Projects

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The state Department of Transportation has had fair warning that its most critical transportation facilities on O`ahu are highly vulnerable to climate change. And while potential climate change impacts don’t have to be evaluated in environmental assessments or impact statements (at least, not yet), the state Department of Transportation is beginning to acknowledge them in its reviews of projects in areas around the Honolulu Harbor and Honolulu International Airport. In at least one case, it has proposed mitigation.

More than a year ago, the O`ahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, which advises recipients of Federal Highways Administration grants, issued a climate change risk assessment of the island’s most critical transportation facilities. It looked specifically at areas around Honolulu Harbor, the Honolulu International Airport, bridges to Waikiki, Kalaeloa-Barber’s Point, and Farrington Highway on the Wai`anae Coast.

The report, prepared by SSFM International, grew out of a two-day workshop in early 2011 that brought climate change scientists together with government transportation planners and engineers to assess the impacts climate change is likely to have on key transportation assets.

What they found was that a storm surge from a Category 4 hurricane poses a major threat to nearly all of the areas evaluated, and that the number of hurricanes hitting O`ahu is expected to increase 15 to 30 percent by 2050 and 30 to 60 percent by 2100.

A sea level rise of one to three feet alone doesn’t pose a high threat to many of the areas, except when combined with storm surge, they found. But just how much of a threat is not yet known. New research by University of Hawai`i professor Kwok Fai Cheung aimed at quantifying that is expected to be completed some time this year.

How the DOT is using the OMPO’s report is hard to say. Kylie Wager of the university’s Center for Island Climate Change Adaptation and Policy (ICAP) says she’s unaware of the extent to which the DOT has used the center’s “tool kit,” unviled in December 2011, to help government agencies deal with sea level rise and coastal land use. When it comes to DOT projects located in the Conservation District, discussion of climate change impacts between the DOT and the stte Department of Land and Natural Resources is just beginning, says DLNR director William Aila, adding that it’s been his Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands that’s been driving the discussion. DOT officials did not respond to our requests for comment by press time.

Based on statements in the handful of environmental impact statement and environmental assessments done for harbor and airport projects that have been released since the report was issued, the DOT’s efforts so far to address climate change impacts have been cursory, for the most part.

It’s “pretty much been a series of one-offs,” says professor Chip Fletcher of the University of Hawai`i’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

OMPO’s Randolph Sykes told Environment Hawai`i that the DOT has just completed its first round of O`ahu listening sessions for a Statewide Long-Range Land Transportation Plan, the first plan of its kind. The plan is expected to be completed in a few years and will guide the DOT’s decisions through 2035. Among other things, it will look at sea level rise impacts on transportation infrastructure, Sykes says.

Furthermore, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed legislation last year that directs state and county agencies to consider climate change impacts in their plans and projects. Rules describing how, exactly, they are to do that have yet to be drafted.

And according to Jesse Souki, director of the state Office of Planning, rulemaking to implement Act 286 of 2012 – which adds climate change adaptation as one of the state’s “major areas of concern which merit priority attention” – is not required nor have any rules been proposed by his office.

However, in a draft report released in mid-February, Souki’s office and the University of Hawai`i’s William Richardson School of Law suggest several possible changes to county shoreline setback laws, federal floodplain regulations, and state laws governing environmental reviews and land use boundary amendments to help agencies implement the act. (The report, “Options for Implementing the Hawai`i State Planning Act Climate Change Adaptation Priority Guidelines,” states that its recommendations do not represent the OP’s official position, but are merely a starting point for discussion.)

The DOT has, on its own, incorporated a sea level rise analysis in a recent master plan for harbors on Hawai`i island. Whether the DOT chooses to conduct any other in-depth analysis of climate change impacts for its projects in the meantime remains to be seen.

Environment Hawai`i reviewed several recent environmental documents that were prepared in association with planned improvements in the Honolulu harbor and airport area, with an eye to the discussion of anticipated impacts of sea level rise and increased storm surges. Here is what we found:

Kapalama Container Terminal 

(Draft EIS released December 2012)

As part of Abercrombie’s “New Day” initiative to modernize commercial harbors and increase capacity for overseas containers, the DOT-Harbors Division is proposing to build a new 94-acre terminal on the former Kapalama Military Reservation at the west end of Honolulu Harbor. The $250 million terminal should not only make surface and inter-island distribution more efficient, it will also decrease dependence on the Sand Island bridge that connects O`ahu to the existing overseas cargo terminals, all currently located on Sand Island, the draft EIS states.

“The proposed action is needed to accommodate the anticipated demand of overseas cargo volumes associated with projected growth of the state of Hawai‘i through 2039. If no new capacity is developed, major reductions in service time and increases in operational cost are expected by 2015 at the Sand Island terminals. By or before 2020, cargo efficiency would be constrained with significant impacts on Hawaii’s economy,” it continues.

Although sorely needed, the proposed new terminal may be highly vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge, the OMPO risk assessment found. The DEIS acknowledges the OMPO’s assessment of the site’s vulnerability, as well as its conclusion that areas surrounding the site – parts of Sand Island, Sand Island Access Road, and the area between Snug Harbor (Piers 44 and 45) and Pier 31 – might also be flooded due to a three-foot rise in sea level by the year 2100.

The DEIS also acknowledges several risks, identified by the state’s Ocean Resource Management Plan working group, that are relevant to the terminal’s construction, including submersion of harbor infrastructure due to sea level rise and flooding, increased potential for the spread of diseases and other public safety issues due to flooding conditions, delayed shipments, higher shipping costs, and loss of operational time due to flooding conditions at cargo terminals.

But the DOT stopped short of identifying any mitigation measures. The DEIS notes that the DOT’s Harbors Division is trying to “develop adaptation strategies to address the long-term impacts of climate change,” including collaborating with other agencies and incorporating climate change adaptation into harbor master plans and designs.

With regard to possible flooding of the terminal site, the DEIS states in a footnote that the terminal itself is expected to be built at about eight feet above the current sea level — the same elevation as the existing Sand Island cargo terminals — “which is above the 3-foot sea level rise predicted for the year 2100.”

University of Hawai`i Marine Center Relocation to Piers 34 and 35,

Final Environmental Assessment (January 2013)

One of the tenants to be displaced by the new Kapalama Container Terminal is the University of Hawai`i Marine Center, which sits on 16 acres at Piers 44 and 45, otherwise known as Snug Harbor. The Marine Center plans to move east to a six-acre site at Piers 34 and 35.

The project’s final EIS, prepared by Scott Glenn of Cardno TEC, Inc., notes that the new site is located outside the 100- and 500-year floodplains and that Sand Island usually blocks high waves from reaching the inner harbor, where Piers 34 and 35 are located. What’s more, the site is about 6 to 8 feet above mean sea level, making it unlikely that the wharf line would be affected by a three-foot rise in sea level, the EIS states.

What’s more, it states, sea level is expected to rise by less than a foot by 2038, which is when the university’s lease for the property expires.

Even so, an open drainage canal on the site is likely to flood and inundate surrounding storage areas in Piers 34 and 35, it continues. To address this, DOT Harbors proposes to cover the drainage canal with a box culvert.

With regard to the cumulative impact of a higher sea level, a high tide, a summer swell, and heavy rains, the EA states that renovations “would be designed to meet building and hazard mitigation requirements sufficient to mitigate such an impact.”

“Of more concern is the surrounding feeder infrastructure outside the project boundaries and the jurisdiction of DOT Harbors. Heavy rains, high tide, and a high water table may cause periodic flooding of the area north of the subject property, including Nimitz Highway,” the EA states.

Honolulu Harbor Piers 12 & 15 Improvements DEIS

(January 2013)

The draft EIS for berthing and mooring improvements to Honolulu Harbor’s Piers 12 and 15 restates the OMPO’s conclusion that Honolulu Harbor is highly vulnerable to storm surges, but, like the Kapalama Terminal EIS, it identifies no mitigation. It simply states that proposed action “will not have an impact on climate change vulnerability, although the OMPO study noted that portions of Nimitz Highway may be vulnerable to storm surge flooding and ponding. Over the years, there is likely to be further consideration, discussion and planning for the impacts of climate change on Honolulu Harbor.”

The proposed improvements will accommodate two oil spill response boats.

Airport Modernization Program, HNL FEA (February 2013)

The DOT Airports Division proposes several improvements at the Honolulu International Airport. Under its Airport Modernization Program, the DOT will:

  • Construct a mauka concourse;
  • Demolish an existing terminal;
  • Widen taxi lanes;
  • Cover Manuwai Canal;
  • Reloate cargo/maintenance facilities and construct employee parking;
  • Construct a replacement cargo facility;
  • Construct a replacement commuter terminal;
  • Construct a replacement aircraft parking apron; and
  • Construct a consolidated rental car facility.

The draft EA for the projects address climate change only with regard to emissions from the facility. In his comments on the DEA, Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting acting director Jiro Sumada recommended that the final EA should discuss the possible impact of climate change on the airport, including an assessment of the risk of more extreme weather events and sea level rise through the life of the facilities, as well as a “discussion of how the likely impacts will be accommodated and mitigated in the design and operation of the new facilities that incorporate resilience in the event that extreme events take place.”

The DOT responded, “Although proposed, the state of Hawai`i has not yet passed legislation or promulgated rules and/or guidance requiring a specific evaluation of the effects of climate change (e.g., extreme weather events, sea level rise) as a significance criteria for environmental assessments.”

In any case, the DOT noted, that all project components would be constructed in existing development areas of the airport, “located more than 0.5 miles from the shoreline, located outside the tsunami evacuation zone, and located where the ground surface elevations are equal to or greater than 10 feet above mean sea level.”

* * * 

O`ahu Highways Plan

After its climate change workshop, but before it issued its transportation infrastructure risk assessment report, the OMPO approved a list of federally funded transportation projects through the next 20 or so years.

In its short discussion of climate change, the O`ahu Regional Transportation Plan 2035 states that long-term planning is needed to identify and minimize the risk to transportation facilities near coastal areas, including the island’s coastal roadways – Farrington, Kalaniana`ole, and Kamehameha highways – and Nimitz Highway. However, the plan includes no specific projects to mitigate the potential impacts of sea level rise, increased storm surges, flooding, etc. It simply notes that $50 million will be spent on shoreline protection and about $670 will be spent on “system preservation.” The plan also includes $209 million to widen and realign Farrington Highway.

Teresa Dawson

Volume 23, Number 10 — April 2013

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