A contentious proposal for a new water-bottling plant near Wailoa River State Recreation Area apparently has been halted after an inconclusive meeting last week of the Windward Planning Commission.
The meeting, held Thursday, was a continuation of a December meeting of the commission, which sought to address an application for a Special Management Area use permit that would allow Piilani Partners LLC to drill a 1,000-foot well near the intersection of Piilani and Mililani streets in Hilo.
The issue of the use permit was deferred in December and January and was to be concluded at Thursday’s meeting. Like previous meetings, however, the commission failed to come to a consensus. Unlike previous meetings, the matter was deferred indefinitely, which will lead to the application being denied by default after 60 days.
At Thursday’s meeting, three representatives of Piilani Partners — planning consultant Sidney Fuke, attorney Pam Bunn and groundwater hydrologist Tom Nance — addressed numerous concerns raised by commission members and citizens at previous meetings.
Responding to questions by Bunn, Nance explained the origin of the artesian aquifer the proposed plant would tap into and how extracting water would effect the surrounding environment.
Despite the concerns of members of the public at previous meetings, Nance said tapping into the Maunakea aquifer would make only an infinitesimal change to the amount of water the aquifer discharges into the ocean, thus assuaging concerns about direct impacts to ocean life.
Similarly, the well’s maximum water extraction rate — up to 200,000 gallons per day — would be only a fraction of the maximum sustainable yield of the aquifer, which allows hundreds of millions of gallons to be extracted per day.
Nance also enumerated security measures to ensure the integrity of the well in case of disaster, preventing the contamination of the aquifer in case of tsunami or volcanic eruption.
Addressing concerns about noise, Fuke said Piilani Partners would be willing to reduce noise levels at the bottling plant to a residential threshold.
While Fuke said the business would not be able to address concerns about plastic waste, he said the company would be willing to commit to using biodegradable plastics, should they become widely available in the future.
Like prior meetings, the proposal incurred impassioned opposition from public testifiers.
Hilo resident Cory Harden, who was present at all previous meetings on the plant, reiterated her opposition to taking public trust water from a pristine aquifer for the benefit of unidentified business people. Harden also expressed concerns about setting a precedent for more industry, particularly other bottlers, to develop in the area.
Harden’s criticisms were echoed by other testifiers, all of whom repeatedly argued in favor of preserving the sanctity and security of the Maunakea aquifer for future generations.
After public testimony ended, commissioner John Replogle filed a motion to deny the application, citing the state’s Public Trust Doctrine as it relates to groundwater.
“The Public Trust Doctrine says we must apply presumption in favor of the public interest,” Replogle said. “We’ve heard testimony for months, and everyone has said they’re opposed to it.”
Replogle also said the timing was unfortunate, with the state’s Commission on Water Resource Management currently holding a series of public hearings regarding updates to the state’s Water Resource Protection Plan.
“I think if we approved this, we would not be serving the public interest,” Replogle continued.
Replogle’s motion to deny the application failed, with nobody else voting in favor of it. However, Replogle then filed a motion to defer the matter until after the Commission on Water Resource Management concludes its public hearings and announces whatever findings it makes from those hearings. His motion passed 4-1.
Bunn said Piilani Partners would not be willing to defer the application for a potentially indefinite period of time. Because the applicant was unwilling to agree to an extended deferral, the application will be automatically denied after a 60-day period.
Planning Director Michael Yee said Piilani Partners is likely to appeal the decision after the application is officially denied in two months.
After that, the process is murky, because the Windward Planning Commission did not actually make any decision regarding the application at all.
“This never really was a plastic issue,” Yee said, explaining that while testifiers at previous meetings addressed concerns about the bottling plant generating excessive plastic waste, the commission has no authority to deal with pollution issues. Instead, testifiers at Thursday’s meeting raised issues regarding the public trust, which is within the commission’s purview.
“This has been complicated, because the community has been trying to figure out the intersection between business and our resources,” Yee said. “I understand the passion from the community about the resources of this island, but this is the system of laws we have to work within.”
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.