When Hawaii County Civil Defense reopened portions of the isolated Puna coastline after the 2018 Kilauea eruption, the public discovered a strikingly beautiful new black sand beach had appeared from the sea, and sand and rock had inundated what was once a heavily used boat ramp at Pohoiki.

Now the state Department of Land and Natural Resources is moving forward with a plan to dredge a channel down the middle of that new beach to restore access to the boat ramp, a project urgently needed by the owners of the fishing boats that used to launch there.

Former Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim and others contend the new beach should be preserved and a new boat ramp should be built elsewhere, but that could take five to 10 years.

After hearing of the “dire need” of fishermen and the community to again get ocean access at Pohoiki, the DLNR is set to ask the state Board of Land and Natural Resources on Jan. 8 to waive any requirement for an environmental assessment to clear the way for dredging a channel through the new beach.

But exempting the project from the requirement may turn out to be legally controversial. In fact, environmental lawyer David Kimo Frankel contends there is “no way” the dredging can be legally done without an environmental assessment.

A new black sand beach was created at Pohoiki by the 2018 Kilauea eruption. The Department of Land and Natural Resources plans to dredge a channel through the beach to restore access to the Pohoiki boat ramp. Kevin Dayton/Civil Beat

The rugged Puna coastline has relatively few public spaces where people can access the ocean, and the 2018 lava flow blocked access or destroyed some of those, including the county-owned Ahalanui warm pond near Pohoiki.

The unexpected creation of the new half-moon beach at Pohoiki in 2018 attracted national attention, and drew enough people that the county stationed a life guard there.

But closure of the boat ramp caused a serious hardship for Puna fishermen, who suddenly had to drive 30 miles to launch from Hilo. Pohoiki Bay had provided far easier access to ahi fishing grounds, and some fishermen who launched there report they have lost half of their income or more since it closed.

Restoring or replacing the boat ramp — the only one in Puna —  is included on the county’s list of eruption recovery projects in the “Kilauea Recovery and Resilience Plan.” But Finn McCall, an engineer with DLNR’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, estimated it would take five to 10 years to prepare an environmental impact statement, obtain all the necessary permits and construct a new boat ramp.

Several thousand people signed a petition that — among other things — called for an “immediate temporary solution” for local fishermen who lost their livelihood when the boat ramp closed.

The DLNR initially doubted the wisdom of the dredging project, and issued a news release in mid-2019 declaring that “Pohoiki Clearing is Prohibitively Expensive.” That conclusion was based on a 32-page report by Sea Engineering Inc., which was hired by DLNR to study the issue.

Reopening the boat ramp would require crews to dredge a channel through the new 200-foot-wide sand and cobblestone beach, and build jetties perpendicular to the shore 200 to 300 feet long on each side of the channel to keep it open, according to Sea Engineering. The consultant estimated that would cost nearly $38 million.

But McCall said in a written statement to Civil Beat that when that press release was issued, sand and lava debris were still accumulating in Pohoiki Bay. Since then, the buildup of material on the north side of the bay near the entrance channel has slowed, and much of the material was pushed to the south of the bay.

“Due to these developments and the urgent need to restore ocean access in Puna, the department decided to pursue dredging,” McCall said in his statement.

The Legislature appropriated $1.5 million for the project this year. The initial work will not include the jetties, which means the channel could become clogged again.

Preparing an environmental assessment would delay the dredging, but the request to the land board for an environmental assessment exemption may run into legal complications.

Frankel, the environmental lawyer, said state rules for environmental impact statements and environmental assessments do allow exemptions, but they don’t apply in “particularly sensitive environments.” And the rules specifically define beaches as environmentally sensitive areas, he said.

“There’s just no way they can exempt the project,” he said. He also cited the Hawaii Coastal Zone Management Act, which has specific provisions requiring state agencies to protect beaches.

DLNR declined to make public its staff report to the land board last week in advance of the Jan. 8 meeting, but people familiar with the dredging initiative believe the department will argue the dredging can be exempted because it amounts to “maintenance” of an existing state boat ramp.

Frankel also rejected that argument, pointing out the boat ramp has been closed for more than two years. “You’re not maintaining an existing thing. The existing use is a beach, it’s not a boat ramp,” he said.

“There are very few sandy beaches on the Big Island compared to other islands,” and the state Supreme Court has stressed the importance of Hawaii’s beaches in a number of legal decisions, Frankel said. County lifeguards say as many as 800 people a day come to the beach on weekends.

The new black sand beach created by the Kilauea eruption in 2018 blocks the Pohoiki boat ramp, the only boat ramp in Puna. Kevin Dayton/Civil Beat

But Ku’ulei Kealoha Cooper, who supports the dredging project, said Pohoiki has been a fishing area for generations. It is also an economic driver for the Lower Puna community, she said.

“The beach itself is big enough to provide recreation, but we also need our food sustainability,” she said. Pohoiki has historically been among Hawaii County’s top three harbors for landing fish, and restoring the boat ramp is an important part of the recovery from the volcanic eruption, she said.

“This is a huge part, I believe, of our community, our well-being, starting with food,” said Cooper, whose family has lived in Puna for at least seven generations.

The state received income from the Pohoiki ramp for many years from per-pound fees for the fish brought in at the boat ramp as well as in per-passenger fees for tour boats, but has not invested much of that money back into maintenance or improvements at Pohoiki, she said.

“Frankly, it’s time that the state do its part for our fishermen,” Cooper said. “Historically, recreation comes secondary to food sustainability.”

“It has been a challenge, and we continue to stand firm that we can find balance … between recreation and our fishermen,” she said. “Our community must find that balance, but our fishermen to me are first and foremost, only because it’s within our birthright, it’s within our training, our culture, to eat from the ocean and feed our communities and families.”

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