The state Senate Committee on Water and Land took Board of Land and Natural Resources nominee Christopher Yuen into political rough water during a Wednesday hearing concerning his proposed confirmation.
Yuen, an attorney, farmer and former county planning director who served on the Land Board from 1990-98 and in an at-large seat from 2014 until June 30, was nominated by Gov. David Ige to fill the Big Island seat vacated by the resignation of Hilo attorney Stanley Roehrig.
Yuen is currently holding the Big Island seat on an interim basis. The term he’s seeking appointment to runs through June 30, 2022.
It was a contentious 150-minute hearing, with the panel grilling Yuen on revocable permits vs. long-term leases, renewable energy projects and the diversion of stream water for agriculture.
But perhaps the biggest bone of contention in the hearing was Yuen’s vote in December 2018 that would have allowed developer Haseko to lower a sand berm at One‘ula Beach Park in Ewa Beach, Oahu — also known as Hau Bush — to allow more flood runoff from Kalo‘i Gulch into the ocean.
The Land Board voted 6-1 to deny Haseko a construction right-of-entry permit for the project intended to divert runoff from its Ocean Pointe development into the ocean. The lowering of the berm had long been opposed by limu (seaweed) gatherers, including Henry Chang Wo, since deceased, and the community group KUA, who contended that contaminants such as pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and used motor oil in the runoff would render the limu unfit for human consumption.
Yuen cast the lone vote to grant the permit, opining at the time that sections of Ocean Pointe could flood in the event of a 10-year storm if the berm wasn’t lowered.
“Let’s put this in perspective,” Yuen said under questioning by GOP Sen. Kurt Fevella, who represents Ewa Beach. “A 10-year storm is the worst storm in 10 years. There are going to be brown-water advisories all over the island, there is going to be water flowing into the ocean all over the island.
“The limu — and I say this … based on biological information — the limu will not accumulate toxins. … If you pour bleach over limu, it will kill it. But the limu will not accumulate toxins in the sense of heavy metals or pesticides in an event that lasts for a few hours. And the modeling study that they had done said that the polluted water would clear up in a few hours in the event of a 10-year storm.”
Yuen was interrupted at that point by Sen. Kai Kahele, the committee chairman.
“Hold on, Mr. Yuen, what scientific proof do you have of that?” Kahele asked. “That storm-water runoff that potentially has toxins, motor oil, does not affect the limu in the ocean, like you just said? … How comfortable would you feel eating limu grown in an area that had storm-water runoff, based on what you said?”
Before Yuen had a chance to respond, Fevella broke in.
“Do you know where this place is at? It’s a golf course,” Fevella said. “What they do for golf courses? What they put on the grass? Fertilizer! So that’s what you’re talking about going to come through Kalo‘i Gulch. … So what kind of scientific fact you have that it’s not going cause harm to the limu? The fish? The family, and me, that use Hau Bush for swim, surf and recreation?”
Fevella said the developers “who make money from” Ocean Pointe don’t live there.
“This is where my family swims, bro. We swim in that water — one hour, two hours. … ‘Cause you don’t even know what toxins is coming from Haseko’s property. And every day they use fertilizer. … Would you want to eat fish from Hau Bush or One‘ula, if you had that one-hour (runoff) and the fish eat that toxins?”
Yuen eventually replied he would be comfortable eating the limu after a storm runoff.
Toward the end of the meeting, Fevella asked Yuen if he was a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party, and Yuen replied he was.
Fevella cited Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 171-4, which states there can be no more than three members of the same political party on BLNR, and said Chairwoman Suzanne Case, Kauai member Thomas Oi and at-large member Wesley Yoon are all “card-holding Democrats.”
“And you are also, sir,” Fevella added. “…We cannot have more than three belonging to the same party on the board.”
“I’m glad you brought that to my attention, senator,” Yuen said. “I think future service on the board is, at this point, more important to me than my membership in the Democratic Party. And I will resign.”
The committee will vote at 1:30 p.m. Monday on whether to recommend Yuen’s appointment to the full Senate, which has the power to confirm or deny the appointment.
Yuen didn’t return a phone call following the hearing in time for this story.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.