Environmental Impact Statements: A Critique

I recently spent several weekends reading a thousand-plus page environmental impact statement prepared for a state-level project in my hometown of Honolulu. I’d never read an environmental impact statement before, but I had an interest in the proposed project, which involved creating a beach in Waikiki where there has historically been no sandy beach by dumping tons of sand (anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 truckloads, according to the report) on a significantly stressed coral reef where endangered sea turtles are known to forage for food. This project is a response to climate change, and more specifically, a response to rising sea levels which threaten coastal real estate in Hawai’i.

According to the environmental impact statement, the project would require the burial or relocation of 28 coral colonies in order to create the beach. The project may also have an impact on historical sites important to indigenous people. Kanaka Maoli have expressed concerns that the project could disturb burials near a site where former chiefs made their homes and surfed, while also further degrading a beach that has suffered many degradations over the years. There are also concerns that the addition of the new beaches may impact renowned surfing locations. Many locals note (myself included) that past construction work in Waikiki beach has affected the way Canoes (a popular local surf spot) breaks.

Diamond Head Runoff. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Diamond Head Runoff. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

I’ve written elsewhere about the environmental impact statement in detail, where I analyze sections of the report that gave me pause, but my concerns here are more general and have more to do with how these environmental impact statements are pursued in general, particularly at the state level, and the potential impact this can have on natural resources including water, land, and endangered species.

One of the things we ask of our journalists and providers of key information is that they avoid conflict of interest. Conflict of interest is when a person cannot reliably work on one project because it would create a conflict or competing interest with his or her personal or professional interests. Conflict of interest issues are why we don’t ask critics to review their own books, why we generally ask artists to not write about their own art, why a prosecutor would never be put in charge of getting a conviction for her own spouse, mother, or child, and why it’s generally frowned upon for professors to date their graduate students. And yet, in the case of an environmental impact statement that would determine the environmental and cultural soundness of creating new beaches in Waikiki, the company that completed the environmental impact statement is the same company that would be contracted to complete the project if the project were to be approved.

We expect that certain pieces of writing come to us from an unbiased source. Journalists strive for this. An environmental impact statement, supported by pages of scientific findings, generally carries an air of authority, the sense of unbiased truth. And yet, it is important to understand that interpretation of science is an art, subject to the same vagaries and biases as those of the art critic. We must consider the source and his or her potential motives. How a piece of scientific writing is structured can impact how the piece is received. The choice to put more or less weight on certain types of research can also impact the conclusions one reaches about a given subject. 

As I read the environmental impact statement, I found many issues and concerns that come down to matters of interpretation and composition.

For example, the report claims that monk seal sightings in Waikiki beach are “rare” and “exceptional” events, but the truth is that monk seal sightings in Hawai’i are rare and exceptional events in general given that monk seals are a highly endangered species. Yet, on April 26, a monk seal was born on Kaimana Beach (Star Advertiser), and parts of the beach had to be closed so the mother could nurse her pup. I have seen monk seals in the water while surfing in Waikiki and have also seen them basking on the section of beach where the proposed construction would take place. And while my sightings of monk seals in Waikiki are anecdotal, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration relies on reported monk seal sightings to track and monitor individuals. Yet, if you read the environmental impact statement, you’d think NOAA’s efforts weren’t scientifically sound or meaningful. The report claims, “The majority of monk seal sighting information collected in the main Hawaiian Islands is reported by the general public and is highly biased by location and reporting effort.” This statement itself is interpretive and subject to bias.

Are environmental impact statements often subject to conflicts of interest? When projects are proposed at the federal level, federal agencies are required to submit environmental impact statements under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). According to the American Bar Association, “federal agencies typically outsource the writing of an EIS to third party contractors (including lawyers, scientists, or engineers) with expertise in their preparation and in relation to the proposed project.” At the federal level, contractors preparing an environmental impact statement must complete a “conflict of interest disclosure statement” according to Cornell Law School.

However, laws governing environmental impact statements at the state level are governed by state law, and these laws can vary. Under the Hawai’i Environmental Policy Act (HEPA), there is no mention of the need to avoid conflicts of interest. Either a project can be found exempt from needing to complete an environmental impact statement, a state agency can complete an environmental impact statement, or an environmental impact statement can be approved by the mayor or a state agency.

Hawai’i has a history of public projects going badly. The Star Advertiser recently reported on a 20-mile, $12 billion dollar “troubled” rail project whose most recent issue includes “wheels too thin and tracks too wide.” The costs of completing a project to improve Waikiki’s beaches are unknown, according to the environmental impact statement. Hawai’i residents would be wise to ask more questions before approving a project whose costs are unknown based on an environmental impact statement completed by the same entity that will be contracted to complete the project were it to be approved. 

I focus on this one environmental impact statement as an example, and to raise wider questions about these documents in general. Environmental degradation is increasing as a rapid rate as demand for resources increases. A UN Report titled The Case for a Digital Ecosystem for the Environment included among its many goals this one: to “establish standards for environmental impact assessments.” Even when government agencies complete their own environmental impact statements, there is the risk that the agency itself will want to hide environmental problems or its own shortcomings. We need a more rigorous standard to evaluate these potential conflicts of interest.

Should state agencies or the governor have the authority to approve projects whose impacts were assessed by the same contractor the agency would hire to complete the project? As we stand now, our fragile environment stands to suffer, and the door is open to corruption.  

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is a writer, surfer, and poet. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.