Legislature Balks at Biosecurity Bills, But Boosts Funds for Invasive Species

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In 2010, a Maui driver suffered permanent brain injury in an accident caused, in part, by overgrown vegetation along the Hana Highway near Paia. He sued both the driver of the vehicle that hit him and the state of Hawai`i for damages.
The second driver settled last year. This year, the Legislature settled the man’s claim against the state for $700,000.

All because of an unmowed shoulder.

There is a lesson here, but it appears to have sailed right past the Legislature.

Across the islands, giant albizia trees loom over roads, parks, waste transfer stations, walkways and bicycle paths. Some threaten traffic on highways vital to public health and safety. Some are rooted on land belonging to public agencies. Many others grow on private land but extend their heavy, brittle limbs over public areas, posing a serious and real risk of injury to anyone passing below.
House Bill 1769 would have appropriated $5 million – roughly seven times the cost of the Maui settlement for overgrown grasses – to control albizia where the trees pose special danger: along roads in Puna, and along streets and highways in Hilo that lead to the Hilo Medical Center. Both were areas identified by Hawai`i County Civil Defense as critical for emergency services and transportation routes.

The funds, to be appropriated to the University of Hawai`i, were to be directed in turn to the Big Island Invasive Species Committee.

Speaking in favor of the bill at its sole hearing, before the House Committee on Water and Land, Hawai`i County Council chair J Yoshimoto noted that albizia were “dangerous and deadly” trees, and that a falling albizia had already contributed to the death of one Big Island resident. Waianuenue Avenue, he continued, “the main access route to Hilo Hospital, has been closed due to albizia trees falling and branches breaking off. Power is disrupted to the affected areas.”

All other testimony was strongly in support of the bill as well. The Water and Land Committee passed it out, but it was never heard again.

Major Fails
Another bill that was intended to address dangerous trees made it nearly to the finish line – but at the last minute took a detour and ended up as a sentence in the report of the budget conference committee.

House Bill 2521 would have appropriated funds to the Civil Defense Division of the state Department of Defense to enable it to cut, trim, or remove “dangerous trees or branches that pose a hazard to other properties” – a task that is authorized by statute but for which the department has never received sufficient funds.

At its first hearing, before the House Committee on Public Safety, the measure received overwhelming support. Springer Kaye, manager of the Big Island Invasive Species Committee, informed the committee that the acreage covered by albizia, “the most notorious hazard tree, is expanding on Hawai`i island at a rate of 10 percent per year.” She brought up an element of social justice as well, noting that albizia “threaten the homes of our lowest income families, who lack the resources to address an expensive threat.” Removing hazard trees from isolated locations also is in the public interest, Kaye said: “These trees serve as a seed source, spreading invasive species to road and power line easements. Hazard trees also overhang sidewalks and roads, dropping branches and creating a safety hazard.” She added that other state and city governments have faced civil liability judgments over lawsuits involving falling trees and limbs ranging upwards of $12 million.

Steve Siglar, with Hawai`i Civil Defense, told the committee that since the legislation was passed, in 2009, allowing his agency to remove hazardous trees from private property, it had received 199 requests for assistance. “Of those … 138 have been resolved. The remaining 61 are being followed up on; however, a number of those will not be resolved because the tree owner refuses to respond in any way to the concern. When the tree owner refuses to respond, SCD [State Civil Defense] follows up on the situation, but due to lack of funding cannot take action… To date, a number of cases that fall in this category have resulted in the trees of concern eventually failing and causing severe damage to electrical infrastructure and the property/lives of the citizens who had originally asked for state assistance.”

Mark Kikuta of Pearl City was one of those who had sought assistance from Siglar. “I am a homeowner with a hazardous albizia tree hovering over my home that grew another 10 feet this year,” he told the committee. He and his neighbors, whose houses are also threatened by the tree, have tried for some time to get the owner of the land where the tree is growing to trim its branches, he said. “My family are afraid that one day a 15+ mile wind/rainstorm will cause huge branches or even the tree to fall and destroy my home.”

Testimony from Marvan Wakabayashi, another Pearl City resident, stated that an overhanging albizia threatened his family, his grandchildren, and also children from Palisades Elementary whose shortcut to school passes under the tree.

After the first hearing, the bill was amended to allow funds to be used to address other threats, including unstable rock or soil hazards and clogged streams or waterways. It then sailed through the Senate, substantially unchanged. Although it was assigned to conference committee on three separate dates, House Bill 2521 never made it to passage.

Instead, $1 million was inserted into the state Department of Defense budget with the intention that the funds be used “to eliminate or mitigate the threat that hazardous natural conditions pose to residents, such as unstable or overgrown trees.” (Another $1 million was inserted into the budget of the Department of Land and Natural Resources for rockfall mitigation.)

* * *

Biosecurity was a notion that captured the attention of many legislators this past term. But as popular as the idea seems to have been, none of the several measures addressing this issue, focusing on quarantine of imports and inter-island shipments, made it to passage.

House Bill 1932, for example, would have boosted the Department of Agriculture’s (DOA) budget to carry out “pre-entry measures to minimize the risk of invasive pests entering the state;” to conduct port inspections to detect, quarantine, or destroy pests on arrival; and to administer post-entry measures to mitigate the establishment of pest species.

Once in the Senate, the bill was burdened with language calling for the DOA to work with exporting states and countries to establish pre-entry inspection programs and encouraging public-private partnerships that would develop the facilities where inspection and treatment would occur.

Testimony throughout two months of hearings was supportive from a wide range of individuals and organizations. Scott Enright, administrator of the Department of Agriculture, while indicating he favored the measure, suggested that legislators simply add funds to the department’s plant-pest and quarantine budget.

By the time the Legislature adjourned, the bill had died in conference. Enright’s biosecurity budget was essentially unchanged from last year’s.

House Bill 2468 was another one designed to improve the state’s defenses against new pests. It would have given funds to the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism (DBEDT) to study the feasibility of establishing quarantine inspection and treatment facilities for incoming and outgoing cargo at one or more sites on the Big Island. DBEDT director Richard Lim estimated the cost of the studies at $300,000.

The bill lost focus once it hit the Senate. There, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz of Wahiawa amended it by inserting into it the contents of two bills he had introduced but which were effectively killed by the House. The first would have established an agricultural foreign-trade zone in Wahiawa. The second would have established an agricultural high-tech park, again in Wahiawa.

The bill didn’t survive the added weight and died in conference.

Rising Opposition
House Bills 1932 and 2468 generally received favorable support. Not so with bills that would have beefed up the quarantine protocols and penalties for interisland shipment of invasive species.

House Bill 1994 would have established a statewide quarantine system to prevent the interisland shipment of material containing coqui or the little fire ant. This would be achieved by, among other things, putting the burden on the shipper to ensure that transported goods were not carrying the unwanted species and setting a schedule of fines and penalties for non-compliance. It also called for establishment of a task force within the Hawai`i Invasive Species Council to address intrastate biosecurity.

The bill had two hearings. At the first, support was strong from environmental groups, organizations fighting invasive species, and individuals. Support from agencies such as the Departments of Land and Natural Resources, Transportation, and Agriculture was less enthusiastic. They generally applauded the bill’s intent but stopped short of urging its quick passage.

By the time the second hearing was held, it had attracted strong opposition from the landscape and floral export industry. Although it made it across to the Senate, the bill, which was referred there to four separate committees, never had much of a chance.

Senate Bill 2347, intended to prevent the interisland shipment of coqui and other pests, made it further down the legislative pike – but the longer it was alive, the more opposition it seemed to attract.

As introduced, the bill would have added a new section to the Department of Agriculture laws, requiring that all nursery stock, whether from certified or non-certified nurseries, be treated before shipment offsite – whether to another island or simply another locality on the same island as the nursery. Anyone purchasing nursery stock without proof that it came from a clean site would have to bear the cost of eradication if their property were determined later to be infested.

The penalties proposed by the bill were especially harsh in the eyes of many critics. The existing statute, which penalizes the intentional shipment of prohibited animals, would be applied to anyone doing so merely with “gross negligence.” Anyone who “imports, possesses, harbors, transfers, or transports, including through interisland or intraisland movement, … any pest” designated by statute or rule would also be subject to penalties, whether the possession was intentional or not.

Nurserymen and the Hawai`i Farm Bureau testified against the bill, while the Department of Attorney General weighed in with questions about the removal of criminal intent from the criminal provisions.

Amendments attempted to address some of the concerns, but in the end, the measure was still thought to impose too onerous a burden on farmers and nurserymen who want as much as anyone else to see the coqui, fire ants, and other pests eradicated.

A letter to Rep. Chris Lee, chairman of the Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, provides some insight not only into the demise of this particular measure, but into the political deals that course like an underground stream throughout the entire legislative session.

The letter, dated April 1, was from the Waimanalo Agricultural Association and was signed by Clifford Migita, its president.

“The Waimanalo Agricultural Association,” Migita wrote, “is reminding you of your assurance to kill SB2347 by pulling it from the Finance Committee and getting it into your EEP committee. You attended an emergency meeting that was called to discuss this bill and you told us that you would sit on the bill and kill it. We are holding you to your word. We feel there should be: NO COMPROMISE. NO SUGGESTIONS. NO TASK FORCE. NO FURTHER STUDY.”

In fact, Lee appears to have done exactly what WAA sought in the waning days of March. According to the Legislature’s log, on March 21, the bill had been referred to the Finance Committee, but before that panel held a hearing, on March 28, it was re-referred to Lee’s committee and the Committee on Agriculture.

Lee’s committee held a hearing on the bill on April 1. It gutted the language of the earlier draft and replaced it with language, suggested by the DOA, to beef up the department’s ability to inspect shipments of plants and other materials not just inter-island, but also within islands (intra-island). Also, it would have required the DOA to “conduct a pathways and commodities risk assessment on little fire ants, coqui frogs, and other listed pests” to improve on methods of prevention, risk mitigation, and best management practices.

The bill was not heard again.

* * *
Big Island Earmark

House Bill 1904 would have allocated $2 million in general funds to the Hawai`I Invasive Species Council (HISC), with instructions that it be used for “education regarding and the prevention and eradication of invasive species on the island of Hawai`i.”

The bill had one hearing early in the session. Testimony from the DLNR and environmental groups was supportive generally, but cautioned that the specific direction of HISC funds to one island could work against the council’s larger mandate to address invasive species statewide.

DLNR Director William Aila noted that Hawai`i island “has the state’s largest populations of little fire ants, coqui frogs, and the invasive plantMiconia calvescens.” But, he went on to say, the state “faces serious invasive species threats on all islands” and he suggested that it would be more appropriate for invasive species control on the Big Island to be considered “within the context of statewide needs.”

Similar testimony was offered by The Nature Conservancy of Hawai`i. While it appreciated “the crisis situation that exists with respect to invasive species, particularly on Hawai`i Island,” it stated, “we hope that the necessary response to the pest issues on Hawai`i island will not prevent the state and its partners from also devoting appropriate attention and funding to pest issues across the islands…”

TNCH went on to note the “unintended financial impacts” that such earmarked funding have had in the past. In 2007, “the Legislature’s provision of specific funding for coqui control was really a shifting of existing funds from other invasive species programs, which then caused layoffs in the Island Invasive Species Committees and a hiatus in the Hawai`i Invasive Species Council’s research grant program.”

The testimony went on to ask that the Legislature “avoid a piecemeal response and instead take a comprehensive approach of providing significant and consistent funding to address the full range of invasive species priorities across the state.”

Apart from the sympathetic testimony, HB 1904 drew the wrath of the Big Island hunting community. Members of the Hawai`i Hunting Association and the Hawai`i Sportsmen’s Alliance sought to have the funds go toward education or, in the alternative, to have HISC define invasive species in such a way as to exclude game animals.

In the end, the arguments against earmarking HISC funds carried the day. The House Committee on Water and Land’s report stated that increasing the HISC’s “total funding benefits the council’s statewide mission… [P]roviding sufficient funds for the council to successfully carry out its mission should be a priority.” The bill never made it to a second hearing.

* * *
HISC Funds Increase Nearly Seven-Fold

After batting down the several bills that would have earmarked funds for to combat one or another species or invasive-species tasks on a specific island, the Legislature took to heart the need for ramped-up spending overall to combat invasives.

House Bill 1716, which calls for $5 million in general funds for the Hawai`i Invasive Species Council, was the vehicle for this. Remarkably, it made it through four committee hearings without a single amendment.

According to testimony from the DLNR’s Aila, although the governor’s budget included $1 million in supplemental funds for HISC (over and above $750,000 already included in the budget for fiscal year 2014-2015), the administration was supportive of this measure as well. “With recent discoveries of new invasive species infestations,” Aila stated, “the governor and the department are now supporting the $5,000,000 supplemental appropriation…. This is the amount calculated by HISC support staff to maintain project capacity and function in FY15. “

The measure was praised by all who testified. And while a nearly seven-fold increase over the 2013-14 fiscal year appropriation is a major advance, Josh Atwood, HISC coordinator, provided a bit of history that put the appropriation into a larger context.

“The Legislature created the HISC in 2003 as a tool for cabinet-level, interagency coordination on invasive species issues…. The initial goal for the 2004 Executive Budget was $5,000,000 in general funds. Actual appropriations from the general fund from FY05-09 varied between $1,000,000 to $2,000,000 annually, dropping to $0 from FY10-13. In FY14, the Legislature approved $750,000 in general funds for each year of the FY14-15 biennium.

“The invasive species problem in Hawai`i was described in a 2002 Legislative Reference Bureau study as requiring $50,000,000 annually across all funding sources. The subsequent decade has seen an expansion of many priority invasive pests: Little Fire Ants have spread from Hawai`i Island to Kaua`i and Maui and have been detected for the first time on O`ahu. Axis deer have been illegally transported from Maui to Hawai`i Island, threatening critical agricultural and conservation areas. Coqui frogs have been detected in every county, though vigilant detection and control programs have thus far kept coqui from establishing on Kaua`i, O`ahu, and Moloka`i. The reduction in Vector Control staff at the Department of Health has resulted in reduced monitoring for mosquitoes that may carry yellow fever, dengue fever, or malaria.”

As of press time, the bill had not been signed by the governor.


Patricia Tummons


Volume 24, Number 12 — June 2014


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