Governor talks Big Isle issues

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Gov. David Ige says he is excited about what the future has in store for the Big Island.

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Gov. David Ige says he is excited about what the future has in store for the Big Island.

On Tuesday, his third visit to Hawaii Island in 2015, Ige toured the Pacific Biodiesel facility in Keaau and attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Facility at Hilo International Airport.

“I am committed to 100 percent renewable generation for electricity in the state, and activities at Pacific Biodiesel are part of that conversation,” he said.

While in the Hilo area, Ige sat down with the Tribune-Herald to discuss a number of issues, from the June 27 lava flow and geothermal energy to invasive species, GMOs and his controversial nomination of Carleton Ching as chairman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

One of Ige’s most recent visits was in December, when he came to tour the lava flow as it inched its way toward Pahoa. Since then, he said, he and his team have been actively involved in the response, participating in weekly status calls and monitoring updated reports.

“It certainly has been something that has been top of (my list),” he said.

Earlier this month, Ige signed a proclamation extending the emergency period for the lava flow, which he said will ensure vital services continue.

As for the ongoing response effort, Ige said Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi and Darryl Oliveira, Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator, have done a great job, and that the situation has been a good model of community engagement and sharing information.

Ige’s predecessor, former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, was not shy about his position on geothermal energy, voicing support for it as an important resource for the state’s future energy needs. Asked about his stance, Ige said, “I do think, you know, we should go through the permitting processes.”

Hawaii Electric Light Co. is working to begin a geothermal power project that would generate an additional 25 megawatts on Hawaii Island. Ormat Technologies, which operates Puna Geothermal Venture, was selected last month to provide those additional megawatts of geothermal power to HELCO.

“We just want to be certain that they go through all of the rules and regulations that are required for development of the geothermal resource, if the project should move forward,” he said.

One issue being targeted by local legislators this year — as they have in previous sessions — is invasive species, notably albizia trees, which caused significant damage in the wake of Tropical Storm Iselle. Nine bills directly targeting the fast-growing, fragile trees have been introduced, including companion bills seeking $2.1 million for the management of albizia on Hawaii Island.

Ige said his budget includes a significant increase in funding to address invasive species, and that he is committed to addressing the issues head on. In addition to recently hiring new agricultural inspectors across the state, Ige said the Department of Agriculture is being proactive in engaging the community.

“We know the ag inspectors are kind of the first line of defense, but it really is about educating the community, making them aware of things that they can do to help us identify invasive species,” he said.

State senators also are tackling the issue of labeling genetically engineered foods, introducing a bill that would make it illegal, starting Jan. 1, for GMO foods to be sold in the state unless they are labeled.

Ige said he thinks labeling is a federal responsibility and supports the Food and Drug Administration including and improving the labeling requirements of GMO products.

“I think the challenge for us here in Hawaii is our market is small, and we import, you know, 90 percent of the food that we eat,” he said.

The costs associated with a state labeling law would be “significant,” and enforcing it would be a “big challenge,” he said.

As for the Big Island’s law banning the majority of GMO crops, Ige said he thinks as the state pushes for increased food production, farmers should have the flexibility to choose what crops they want to grow and how they want to grow them.

“It’s a big enough challenge for a farmer to be economically viable today, and I really believe that statewide arbitrary legislative restrictions become … a significant burden,” he said. “I think we need to be proactive and look at doing a better job of planning agricultural uses of lands, and try to group farmers that want to be organic and non-GMO together so the risks and threat of drift and cross-pollination and contamination can be minimized.”

Among Ige’s most controversial decisions in his short time as governor was his nomination of Ching, a lobbyist for development company Castle &Cooke, to lead the DLNR.

Despite public outcry, Ige stands by the nomination.

In his travels across Hawaii, Ige said he heard concerns about many divisions within the department.

“For me, I was looking for an experienced executive with good leadership skills that embraced the principals of collaboration, open and honest communication, and being able to find or seek consensus or common goals that would allow us to move the department forward,” he said.

Ige said he’s confident Ching, if confirmed, would be a good leader for DLNR.

“I’m committed to game management, watershed protection … protection of the natural and historic resources of our communities,” he said. “And I’m certain that Carleton is the best leader to help me achieve those objectives.”

The state Senate is expected to vote today on whether to confirm Ige’s nominee.

Among other Big Island issues Ige is keeping an eye on is the pending $4.3 billion sale of HELCO’s parent company, Hawaiian Electric Co., to NextEra Energy. He said he asked the state Public Utilities Commission to look at the proposal from the broadest perspective possible and ensure it is in the best interest of the people of Hawaii.

Asked what he views as the Big Island’s biggest issue or priority, Ige said making sure the Hawaii Health System Corp. is sustainable. Through the years, the statewide hospital system’s requested general fund subsidy has grown from about $80 million to more than $160 million, he said.

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“Clearly, that growth is just not sustainable over the long haul,” Ige said. “So, it’s really looking at what actions we need to take to ensure that the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation can continue to provide needed services to our communities … here on the Big Island.”

Email Chris D’Angelo at cdangelo@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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