Editor’s note: Today we’re taking a look at the environmental records of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor. Voters will choose between Neil Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann in Sept. 18’s primary election. Their past work on energy and the environment point us toward an understanding of how they would manage Hawaii’s natural resources as the state’s leader. Here’s the link to the related article about Abercrombie.

Mufi Hannemann

In the six years since Mufi Hannemann took office as Honolulu mayor, a lot has changed.

For more than half a decade, Hannemann ran the 12th most populous municipality in America. His record — that is, his past actions in office and not just campaign positions or future goals — might be thin on some issues, if only because of the way that the counties and the state share responsibilities in Hawaii.

But for those citizens that think about the environment when they step into the voting booth, the bread and butter of Hannemann’s record — a slew of massive infrastructure projects — gives some clear indicators for how he’d perform as governor.

He pushed hard for rail as a means of taking cars off the roads and reluctantly oversaw major steps forward on curbside recycling and sewer repairs. We explore — through an environmental lens — Hannemann’s record on some of the biggest issues he handled as mayor.

Rail — A Clean Energy Project?

A lot has already been said about rail, but most of the conversation has centered on the impact to traffic and the impact to the city’s checkbook. But what about the impact to the environment?

Blue Planet Foundation Executive Director Jeff Mikulina said he and other clean energy colleagues have wrestled with that question.

“Rail could help direct growth and be a transportation alternative, but we really need to have an idea on how we’re going to power it,” Mikulina said Wednesday. Even if fueled by oil-burning power plants, “rail is going to win” compared to the cars of today, especially those with a single occupant and those idling in traffic, he said.

Rail opponents have posted their own analysis of the comparison [pdf] between rail energy use and the energy use of cars at honolulutraffic.com. They argue that rail will not be more energy efficient than automobiles.

Source: Honolulutransit.org

Regardless of which is more efficient in terms of energy consumption, perhaps the most important factor is where that energy comes from. The best long-term solution could be to take advantage of the new Kahuku wind farm, Mikulina suggested. “The rail could just be a dedicated customer and provide that guaranteed buyer for the electricity at all hours.”

To date, the city has not committed to any specific power source.

“Absent that information, it’s too early to say that it is more clean” than high-efficiency, biofuel-powered or electric vehicles that will soon be prevalent in Hawaii, Mikulina said.

Source: Hawaiian Electric

Asked if the rail project will move the ball forward on clean energy and if there are any plans to power it specifically using clean energy sources, Hannemann spokeswoman Carolyn Tanaka said rail transit is consistent with the goals of a clean energy policy.

“Most clean energy initiatives are associated with providing alternative ways to generate electricity or using electricity instead of fossil fuels as a direct power source,” Tanaka said in a written statement. “Since rail transit is electrically powered, it is directly compatible with efforts by utilities to generate electricity from renewable resources such as wind energy, solar energy, and bio-fuels. That is why rail transit is endorsed nationally by the Sierra Club as being friendly to our environment.”

While Mikulina says there are certainly other benefits of the proposal — it will direct growth along a corridor of development, will provide a means of transportation for the young, elderly, disabled and poor residents who can’t drive themselves, and will make Honolulu more like other well-run cities with robust public transportation options — he still wants to determine the overall carbon footprint of the rail project, which depends on many factors.

Blue Planet Foundation is a non-profit 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization and as such is barred by federal law from making endorsements or entering the political fray. However, Mikulina personally donated $400 to Abercrombie’s gubernatorial campaign, disclosure filings show, and two other Blue Planet Foundation employees chipped in a total of $1,280 during the most recent reporting period. Mikulina also made two brief (and uncredited) appearances in an Abercrombie YouTube video.

“Mufi’s train” is likely to consume a good amount of electricity once it’s up and running, but it’s just one of a handful of energy issues. Some others have been raised by critics of Hannemann’s environmental record as Honolulu mayor.

Mufismess.com, a new website registered Sept. 4, makes the case that there are shortcomings or inaccuracies in Hannemann’s environmental record relating to clean energy, safe water, recycling and smart land use planning. The Sierra Club Hawaii PAC created the site.

“Mufi Hannemann is spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to ‘green’ his devastating environmental record,” the site says. “He’s banking on the hope that you have a short memory and don’t remember the environmental disasters, lack of planning, and poor policy that were hallmarks of his administration.”

Sierra Club Hawaii director Robert Harris explained the site and the club’s decision to endorse Abercrombie, Hannemann’s opponent in the primary, saying, “You don’t expect that you’ll find a politician that you’ll agree with all the time, but to find a politician that has so consistently made choices that seem contrary to the environment is unusual.”

In one section of the site, Hannemann’s record on energy is described as “deplorable.”

“Hannemann failed to work toward achieving the goal of 7 percent reduction in greenhouse gas from 1990 levels by 2012” laid out by the Mayors Climate Protect Agreement, the site says. “Hannemann talks about clean energy, but his record proves he is uninterested or incapable of driving energy independence.”

The site points to a September 2007 story in the Honolulu Advertiser detailing Hannemann’s rejection of a wind farm at Kahe due to cultural concerns and a September 2009 story revealing that the city’s electricity consumption had climbed 15 percent in two years. And it complains that Hannemann’s opposition to Property Assessed Clean Energy derailed a clean energy bill in the Hawaii Legislature this year.

Asked for comment on Mufismess.com, the Hannemann campaign said it would not participate in anything negative which mocks Hannemann’s work toward finding real solutions to protect Hawaii’s environment, particularly when it is generated by supporters of his opponent.

Hannemann, for his part, points to a number of steps he took as mayor to move the ball forward on clean energy. His campaign points out that he established the Energy and Sustainability Task Force, as there had been no city program for sustainability prior to his coming into office.

The campaign identified numerous accomplishments and initiatives undertaken in the last six years, including joining the global “Earth Hour” movement, retrofitting existing machines with “Vending Machine Misers,” maintaining personal computer power management system on 1,700 computers and purchasing hybrid diesel-electric buses — replacing 50 percent of the bus fleet by 2013 and the entire fleet by 2017.

It’s conceivable that one day, rail will be added to that list. But that seems to depend on how the train is powered, and that’s a decision that will be left up to future mayors and not Hannemann.

Honolulu’s Dilapidated Sewers

One of Hannemann’s worst days in office had to be Friday, March 24, 2006, when weeks of near-non-stop rain finally pushed Honolulu’s aging sewer system past its breaking point.

A 42-inch sewer line ruptured in Waikiki, giving the mayor a choice of two inconceivable evils: allow the raw sewage to back up into hotels and office buildings in the island’s tourism mecca or pump it, essentially, directly into the Pacific Ocean. Hannemann chose the latter, sending nearly 50 million gallons of untreated waste into the Ala Wai Canal and then out to sea.

Source: Flickr: ptjoe12000

The effects of Hannemann’s decision to pump the waste into the Ala Wai did have consequences. One man eventually died after falling into the canal, and images of fouled Hawaii beaches were spread across the world.

Four years later, just before leaving office to run for governor, Hannemann announced that the city was close to finalizing an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Hawaii Department of Health and environmental groups to set a timetable for improvements to the city’s wastewater system after years of lawsuits and decades of inaction. He now says he built a consensus between the parties.

“While on the one hand it’s great that the city finally settled the lawsuit, it’s kind of funny that he took credit for it after fighting it for so many years,” said Stuart Coleman, Hawaii Coordinator for Surfrider Foundation, a group that works to improve water quality and promote beach access.

“Mufi Hannemann, instead of working with the EPA in a more cooperative way to resolve this problem, fought it and hired a lot of lawyers to fight this,” Coleman said. “The environmental community just wanted to see the problem resolved and not fight it and force the city’s hand and make them spend money.”

The delays have been criticized by environmentalists, but Tanaka said the issue was making sure any agreement was affordable for Honolulu taxpayers.

“Concerns over affordability and our families’ ability to pay their sewer fees were always forefront in the discussions. The EPA, DOJ, and other parties did not always agree with our priorities or desires for an affordable schedule,” she said, calling EPA’s negotiating position “rigid,” “unrealistic” and “divorced from technical and financial realities.”

In a January 2010 op-ed, “Hannemann also expressed the need to stand firm in the face of unreasonable demands that are not proportionate to the risk of environmental harm, in order to protect the ratepayers,” Tanaka said. When the EPA agreed to a longer timetable for the improvements that would not be as burdensome for ratepayers — 25 years or more — a deal was struck.

So it won’t be fixed overnight. Small sewage spills continue to occur frequently due to a sewer system that is considered by many to be outdated and dilapidated, and it likely won’t get better until the improvements are done. And because sewer fees remained flat for a decade, the city is just now starting to dig itself out of a sizable hole.

But the environmental impact of those spills is just part of the problem, Coleman said. Stormwater runoff causes damage, too.

“Every time you have a hard major rain, the water quality just takes a dive because all of the stormwater from these events goes right into the ocean unfiltered,” Coleman said. Oils and fertilizers damage coral reefs, kill fish and pose a hazard to human health.

Surfrider has pushed for green roofs, rain barrels, the use of more permeable surfaces like gravel and projects to put native plants like akulikuli along the Ala Wai to serve as a filter.

Hannemann’s campaign said he initiated a number of projects related to water conservation and water quality while mayor, including auditing city facilities for leaks and repairing piping to reduce water loss to 10 percent or less by 2015, installing waterless urinals in new buildings and mitigating pollutants that may detrimentally impact streams, estuaries and near shore waters.

The city is also seeking to work with the University of Hawaii to conduct a study of the effectiveness of rain catchment systems in dry, wet, valley and ridgeline developments, and expand their use to city facilities by 2017, the campaign said.

The problems with water quality haven’t yet been solved, but Coleman said Honolulu is in a better spot today than it was six years ago, before Hannemann took office.

“To be fair and more objective, he inherited a really bad situation. Mayor Jeremy Harris was a real culprit in this,” Coleman said. “This should have happened a while ago, but we’re moving in the right direction. So that’s the good news.”

Making Recycling Easy

Twice each week, Honolulu residents have their trash bins picked up from the curbs outside their homes. One of those days is for regular solid waste to be burned at H-POWER or placed in the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill. The other is for recyclables — aluminum cans, glass bottles and jars, plastic containers, newspaper and cardboard — and green waste.

Source: Honolulu Department of Environmental Services

Under the program, many on Oahu now recycle. But more than that, the mentality fostered by sorting trash was the beginning of Honolulu people being environmentally conscious, Hannemann’s campaign said, and we all owe that to Mufi Hannemann.

The curbside program is one of many new recycling initiatives touted by Hannemann’s campaign. The others include expanding and enhancing H-POWER by 2011 to increase its capacity to generate electricity, generating electricity from the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill Methane Gas Retrieval System, increasing commercial sector recycling through mandatory compliance and technical support and educating the community that material and energy recycling promotes sustainability.

But the same dynamic at work in the debate over sewage infrastructure seems to apply to recycling. Environmentalists were frustrated when Hannemann dragged his feet or even opposed the program for years, and are now incensed that he’s taking credit for the progress that was made despite, or in spite of, his efforts.

Harris, the Sierra Club chief, complained that while he has nothing against Hannemann personally, he’s frustrated that the former mayor has been able to “take weaknesses and turn them into strengths.”

“It seems fundamentally unfair for someone to campaign on their record, and yet when you look at that record, a lot of it is misleading or dishonest,” Harris said.

The website criticizing Hannemann’s environmental policies calls him the “biggest obstacle” to the implementation of curbside recycling on Oahu. It includes a timeline that starts with the October 2005 announcement that the city was canceling curbside recycling plans.

Months later, Hannemann signed into law a bill requiring the establishment of an islandwide curbside recycling program to collect at least two types of waste from among glass, newspapers, plastic, green waste and food waste.

That item was left off the “Mufi’s Mess” timeline, though the site noted that his administration subsequently argued that burning garbage in the H-POWER waste-to-energy plant qualified as “recycling.”

Asked if Hannemann still believes burning trash would be preferable to recycling considering the costs, Tanaka said both recycling and power conversion are methods of dealing with solid waste in a responsible, sustainable manner.

“We do benefit from a shared revenue that the recycler’s sales. Not all material found within the municipal solid waste stream is suitable for recycling or has a high dollar value on the market,” she said. Other material is converted at H-POWER to electricity and then sold to HECO and generates revenue.

“Every ton of municipal solid waste that is recycled to power is equivalent to the the power generated from one barrel of oil,” Tanaka said. “Trash has been and will continue to be a byproduct of the state’s population. An integrated solid waste management plan is critical in identifying the highest and best use of all components of the waste stream. Landfilling is the last resort for material that has no recycle value or energy producing value.”

Either way, voters forced Hannemann’s hand, overwhelmingly approving a curbside recycling amendment [pdf] to the Honolulu Charter, 75 percent to 17 percent [pdf] in the 2006 general election. In his February 2007 State of the City address [pdf], Hannemann caved, putting forward a proposal to pay for a program.

Not long after, pickup was under way, and the program continues to grow.

The episodes dealing with sewer repairs and curbside recycling show Hannemann’s focus during his time as mayor remained on the city’s checkbook. He has repeated throughout the campaign that fiscal management was chief among the skills he’d bring to the governor’s office, and finding a balance between environmentally sensitive actions and economically sensible ones is a tough job for any executive.

It’s no easier for voters.

DISCUSSION Which of the Democratic hopefuls for governor has proven to be the best friend to the environment? Join the conversation.

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