Proposed water bottling plant raises concerns

The Hawaii County Windward Planning Commission delayed the approval of a permit for a water bottling facility near Wailoa River State Recreation Area after a contentious meeting Thursday.

The company behind the proposed bottling facility, Piilani Partners LLC, applied earlier this year for a Special Management Area use permit to allow the company to drill an approximately 1,000-foot well at the intersection of Piilani and Mililani streets.

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That application was once again deferred during Thursday’s meeting after the commission failed to come to an easy consensus.

Two representatives of Piilani Partners — planning consultant Sidney Fuke and attorney Pam Bunn — outlined their intentions for the site and the legality surrounding it. Fuke said the well, which draws from the Maunakea aquifer, located below the Mauna Loa aquifer, will limit its water extraction to 200,000 gallons per day.

Fuke said the maximum daily water extraction the aquifer can sustain is about 390 million gallons, of which the proposed well limit is a very small fraction.

Meanwhile, Bunn argued that because the Maunakea aquifer is not designated a state groundwater management area, the State Commission on Water Resource Management has no authority over it, and thus its use defers to common law, which dictates the property holder has a right to extract groundwater beneath the property, within reasonable bounds.

Bunn said the county charter has a public trust doctrine that has a dual mandate: to preserve its natural resources, but also to develop those resources where possible in accordance with principles of conservation. To reconcile these purposes, Bunn said the county has to examine the value of the proposed use of the resource against potential other uses, but added that much of the aquifer’s water is unused and simply flows into the ocean.

Following up on a recommendation made by commission member John Replogle during a previous meeting, Bunn said she knows of no document that grants the county authority to levy royalties on every gallon extracted, but said she is confident her clients will be amenable to some form of recompense to the county for using the aquifer.

After the initial testimony from Fuke and Bunn, the meeting opened to public testimony, which was critical of the project.

Hilo resident Cory Harden opposed the project on environmental grounds, saying the well would compromise the health of the watershed, while the bottling plant will introduce more than half a million tons of plastic per year into the environment.

Fellow resident Kamaki Rathburn delivered an impassioned statement in opposition of the project, explaining that the bottling process will be unavoidably loud, will produce fumes and will release ozone into the atmosphere. More broadly, he argued, seeking to privatize and commodify water, at a time of global environmental crisis, is morally wrong.

“These people are like water vampires,” Rathburn said. “They can only come in if they’re invited.”

After public testimony, Replogle filed a motion to deny the application for the permit, arguing that water commodification has proven to be detrimental to the public in cases such as Flint, Mich., where public water has been contaminated by lead for years, while multinational corporation Nestle bottles water from the surrounding Great Lakes with impunity.

Furthermore, Replogle argued, the water from the aquifer that enters the ocean is not wasted, but supplies nourishment to surrounding ocean life — ocean life that already is threatened by the inundation of plastic waste into the oceans, which the bottling plant will likely exacerbate.

Fellow commission members Thomas Raffipiy and Gilbert Aguinaldo also voted to deny the application.

Raffipiy voted on grounds of the sanctity of the aquifer, expressing numerous concerns about mechanisms to protect cross-contamination between the Maunakea and Mauna Loa aquifers, as well as mechanisms to protect the well from contamination by tsunami or the inevitable rising sea levels caused by climate change.

Aguinaldo, meanwhile, said he would support the application if it contained provisions for Piilani Partners to provide some sort of community recompense, whether that be financial donations to Hawaii nonprofits or devising a watershed protection plan.

Although a majority of commissioners voted to deny the application, without a quorum of four, the motion failed.

After much deliberation, the commission voted unanimously to defer the matter to next month’s meeting to ideally provide time for Piilani Partners to address the commission’s concerns. Aguinaldo said he would be in favor of the resolution if Piilani Partners can include sufficient community recompense, but Replogle advised that he likely will vote against the project again next month.

Along with the Special Management Area use permit matter, the commission also deferred a request for a time extension to allow Piilani Partners to comply with rezoning conditions for the site.

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However, the commission did approve a request by Piilani Partners to revoke a previous Special Management Area use permit for the location, which was granted in 1992 to allow the construction of a never-developed fish processing plant.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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