Gar Smith / Earth Island Journal – 2009-03-15 21:19:55
(March 2009) — The Hawai‘ian Superferry Alakai was originally promoted as an “eco-friendly” transit option between the state’s islands. Today, the twin-hulled catamaran is seen as a towering affront to Hawai‘i’s Environmental Policy Act. The Alakai (Hawai‘ian for “ocean path”) is a ferry on steroids – a massive dreadnaught towering five stories above the water and spanning the length of 1.5 football fields. Growing evidence suggests the Superferry may be a super-nefarious Trojan seahorse – a way for Pentagon profiteers to use paradise to test out a prototype armament-carrier.
The Superferry’s route from Oahu to Kauai and Maui crosses a stretch of sea where Alaskan humpback whales birth their calves. But now, the once peaceful waters are being sliced and diced to a depth of 14 feet by twin “wave-piercing” aluminum hulls thundering through the sea at speeds up to 43 mph. “This is tantamount to speeding through a playground,” says author-activist Jerry Mander. “And, as in a playground, it’s the youngest ones who are hit.” Slower, smaller ferries routinely smash into whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and seals – cracking jaws, crushing skulls, slicing off flukes. A 100-ton ship can crush a whale. The Superferry weighs 882 tons. In some waterways, boat strikes account for a third of observed whale deaths. A whale swimming at four knots is no match for a ship speeding at 35 knots.
The 350-foot-long vessel was built to carry as many as 866 passengers and 282 cars. But the last thing many Kauai and Maui residents want is more people and cars. There is also a fear that the ferry will carry invasive pests to island ecosystems that have historically remained protected by their isolation. Until now, most of the islands have only been connected to each other (and the mainland) via airlines and small charter boats. One of Kauai’s great fears, says local filmmaker Koohan Paik, is the introduction of “fire ants, which could spread and destroy our local agriculture.”
On August 26, 2007, the first time the Alakai headed for Kauai, 1,500 people appeared at Nawiliwili Harbor waving protest signs. During the protest, a few surfers plunged into the water and directed their boards toward the oncoming ferry. Other people rowed outrigger canoes into the path of the approaching ferry, and some even swam toward the boat. The opponents brought the boat to a halt, and it took police hours to “restore order.” The next day, the authorities spent $600,000 to fly in Coast Guard reinforcements from Guam and the mainland to face down an even larger crowd. The ferry has not returned to Kauai.
“We love ferries,” insist Mander and Paik, co-authors of The Superferry Chronicles (Koa Books, 2009), but they are no fans of a ship that burns 15 times the fuel a jet plane would need to fly the same distance in one-sixth the time. “Most ferries are state-owned,” Mander observed during a recent chat in San Francisco. But the Alakai is controlled by an “absentee owner” – a Pentagon contractor based 6,000 miles away in New York.
Ferry opponents were enraged when the Hawaiian Superferry Corporation (HSC) received a $140 million federal loan guarantee without having to provide an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Environmentalists sued, and Hawai‘i’s Supreme Court ruled 5-0 that an EIS was required. That’s when Republican Gov. Linda Lingle intervened to circumvent the high court ruling. “For those of us who still believed in the principles of democracy, it was a nightmare coming to life,” Paik says.
In 2005, HSC was taken over by former Navy Secretary James Lehman. “He was so right-wing that Ronald Reagan fired him,” Mander recalls. The company’s new CEO is Admiral William Fargo (ret.), former chief of military operations in the Pacific. According to Mander, the Alakai was intended as a prototype Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) capable of traversing the Pacific with a 56,800-gallon tank that feeds diesel fuel to four turbocharged jet engines – just the right scale for moving Humvees and 21-ton Stryker tanks. (HSC’s second planned superferry, the Koa, will feature military-grade wastewater treatment facilities, an onboard desalination plant, and a fold-down heavy-vehicle ramp.)
Austral USA, the company that builds the Superferry, has joined General Electric to compete for a Pentagon contract to build 55 LCSs at a projected cost of $500 million each. Meanwhile, Gov. Lingle, Hawai‘i’s Ferry Godmother, is prepared to use Department of Homeland Security funds to create a “security zone” around Nawiliwili Harbor and treat future protestors as “terrorists” subject to $10,000 fines and imprisonment. At this rate, it’s not just humpbacks that are in danger: The Superferry juggernaut has also set its sights on islanders’ basic civil rights
Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War. A slightly different version of this article appears in the Spring 2009 edition of Earth Island Journal.