After years of dead birds, lawsuits and even a criminal indictment, the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative finally has a permit to avoid further trouble for any impacts on federally protected seabirds.

But is it just a piece of paper?

On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave its approval [pdf] to the Kauai electric co-op’s habitat conservation plan and incidental take license. Both the co-op and environmentalists touted the important step in press releases Monday.

“We’ve been asking KIUC to implement these common sense protective measures for years, but the utility refused,” said Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity in one release. “It’s gratifying to see they are finally being required under the HCP.”

But the federal permit doesn’t do anything until KIUC is in compliance with all other relevant laws — particularly the state of Hawaii’s species protection statutes.

KIUC said it will spend $11 million over the five-year term of the plan to protect birds.

“KIUC will continue to take its responsibility for seabirds very seriously,” KIUC President and CEO David Bissell said in the company’s statement.

The company quickly tried to use the permit to wriggle out of legal trouble. In a conference in Honolulu federal court Monday morning, KIUC argued that a lawsuit brought by environmentalists is moot, according to one of those environmentalists, David Henkin of Earthjustice.

The co-op was poised to obtain its state permits earlier this year until the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources said it must conduct a full environmental review before implementing a habitat conservation plan or being issued an incidental take license.

Asked Tuesday if KIUC was appealing or protesting that decision, DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward told Civil Beat that the department had already consulted with the attorney general’s office before issuing that decision and that the state understands that KIUC is doing a review of whether a Chapter 343 environmental review is required.

Until that process is complete, and until the state of Hawaii is satisfied KIUC is taking necessary steps to limit its impact on protected seabirds, the federal government’s sign-off isn’t the end of the line.

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