Hawaii’s Top Court Torpedoes ‘Ferry from Hell’

March 23rd, 2009 - by admin

Gar Smith / San Francisco Chronicle – 2009-03-23 22:04:24


SAN FRANCISCO (March 23, 2009) — Hawaii’s Supreme Court has scuttled a controversial inter-island ferryboat that had raised eco-hackles from Oahu to Kauai. The court ruled on March 16 that the operators of the Superferry Alakai would have to file an environmental impact statement before the ship could resume business – a requirement that may well doom the vessel service.

Originally promoted as an eco-friendly transit option, the twin-hulled catamaran now is seen as a towering affront to Hawaii’s Environmental Policy Act. The Alakai is a ferry on steroids – a massive dreadnaught towering five stories above the water and spanning the length of 1.5 football fields.

The Superferry’s route crossed a stretch of sea where humpback whales come to birth their calves. With the Alakai in operation, the once-peaceful waters were 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 Bay Area author and environmental activist Jerry Mander.

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. A whale swimming at 4 knots is no match for a ship speeding at 35 knots.

The 350-foot-long Alakai was built to carry 866 passengers and 282 subcompact cars but the ferry can also carry invasive pests to island ecosystems previously protected by their isolation. Ferry opponents were outraged when the Hawaiian Superferry Corp. received a $140 million federal loan guarantee without having to provide an environmental impact statement.

When Hawaii’s Supreme Court ruled 5-0 that an environmental impact statement was required, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle intervened to circumvent the ruling. “For those of us who still believed in the principles of democracy, it was a nightmare coming to life,” says filmmaker Koohan Paik of Hawaii.

When the Alakai made its first trip to Kauai on Aug. 26, 2007, some 1,500 protesters flocked to Nawiliwili Harbor. About three dozen surfers plunged into the water and paddled their boards into the path of the approaching ferry. They brought it to a halt. Lingle announced she was prepared to use Department of Homeland Security funds to create a security zone around the harbor and to treat protesters as terrorists, subject to $10,000 fines and imprisonment.

“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.

Startling evidence compiled by Mander and Paik suggests the Superferry is a super-nefarious Trojan seahorse – a prototype for a defense contractor interested in field-testing a Littoral Combat Ship capable of traversing the Pacific. While most ferries are state-owned, the Alakai is owned by a New York Pentagon contractor. HSC’s board chairman is former Navy Secretary James Lehman and HSC’s CEO is retired Admiral William Fargo, former chief of military operations in the Pacific.

With a 56,800-gallon tank and four turbocharged engines, the Alakai is perfectly suited for hauling Humvees and 21-ton Stryker tanks. Austal USA, the company that built the Superferry, has joined General Electric to compete for a Pentagon contract to construct 55 Littoral Combat Ships.

HSC declared itself “hugely disappointed” with the ruling and ceased operations on March 17. Meanwhile, “Ferry Godmother” Lingle continues to insist that her discredited maneuvers “were correct and accurate.” “The company is leaving,” says Mander, adding that HSC may be relieved “since they were losing money like mad and now are free to sell the boats to the military or to Singapore.” Hawaii’s environmentalists are happy, too: the loss of the Superferry is good news for humpback whales, the environment and the islanders’ First Amendment rights.

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War (www.enviros againstwar.org).

© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.

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