Several conservation groups have filed notice of their intent to sue the Hawaii Department of Transportation over the harm that bright lights at harbors and airports cause native birds.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm that represents several conservation groups in the state, said in a press release the lights on Maui, Lanai and Kauai are causing birds to circle until they fall from exhaustion or crash into buildings.

Earthjustice accuses the transportation department of violating the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which prohibits the killing of any endangered species of bird. The lights harm three birds in particular, the Hawaiian shearwater, the Hawaiian petrel and the band-rumped storm petrel, seabirds which are all either threatened or endangered, Earthjustice said.

Lanai airport. 13 april 2017

The lights at Lanai Airport in Lanai City are among those that harm seabirds, according to environmental groups that say they are prepared to sue the transportation department.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Now the department has 60 days to alleviate or face a potential court battle. Earthjustice attorney David Henkin wrote in the notification letter that it will “pursue litigation in federal court” if no action is taken.

“Fixing the lights so these magnificent seabirds on the brink of extinction aren’t killed is completely feasible,” said Brian Segee, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in the press release.

Segee told Civil Beat on Thursday that lights harming endangered birds has been an issue in the islands for decades, especially on Kauai.

Save our Shearwaters, a Kauai-based group that tracks the shearwater population, estimated that the population of the Newell’s shearwater dropped by 94 percent from 1993 to 2013. The Hawaiian petrel had a population decrease of 74 percent over the same period.

Airports on Lanai, Kauai and Maui Lihue and Kahului airports were identified as threats to the bird species, along with harbor lights from Nawiliwili and Port Allen on Kauai and Kahului and Maalea on Maui.

The large, bright lights are usually pointed skyward, and sea birds often mistake them for moonlight over the ocean, the groups contend.

Henkin told Civil Beat the department could alleviate the problem by adding shields to the lights and arranging them in a way that doesn’t attract birds.

“If we are going to save these species, we are going to need everyone on board,” Henkin said. “We encourage the Department of Transportation to take the 60 days and get with the program.”

Department spokesman Tim Sakahara said that the department had not yet received the notice from the groups and could not comment.

Updated June 28, 2017: Below, part of HDOT’s statement on the intent to sue notice.

“As a trustee of the State’s environmental resources and as required by law, the HDOT also always works to ensure that these facilities are operated in ways that are protective of the Islands’ sensitive resources including threatened and endangered species,” the statement reads. Read the full statement here.

Read Earthjustice’s intent to sue notice below.

About the Author

Show Comments