An embattled bioenergy project on the Big Island is out of compliance with a slew of county permits, according to the Hawaii County Department of Public Works.

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The department issued a violation notice to Hu Honua on Nov. 18. The notice, obtained through a public records request, says numerous structures at the plant were built without required permits, have lapsed permits or are behind on building inspections.

The out-of-compliance structures include an above ground biodiesel tank, fuel handling area, fuel yard conveyor, air quality control systems and buildings for turbines, chip storage, maintenance and boilers, according to the county.

The company faces deadlines in February and March to take corrective actions or start incurring daily fines of $1,000 per violation.

The county’s review of Hu Honua’s permits began after Steve Pause was promoted to DPW director in August. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Hu Honua is a refurbished sugar plantation power plant 10 miles north of Hilo that has been struggling to win regulatory approval for years. The biomass facility, which the developer says is 99% complete, has been caught up in lawsuits, ping ponging it back and forth between the Public Utilities Commission and the Hawaii Supreme Court. After the PUC rejected the project’s application in May, Hu Honua appealed, sending the dispute back to the high court for review.

Hu Honua President Warren Lee blames the permit mess largely on a change in leadership in DPW and missing paperwork stemming from the county’s switch from one software program to another. When the software change happened, the required paperwork got misplaced, Lee said.

Hu Honua President Warren Lee says the paperwork got misplaced when the county changed software programs, but that it will all be rectified in short order. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The company will refile and get everything straightened out on or before the deadlines, he said.

Lee expressed frustration with the county.

“Nobody’s going to win, especially us. You can’t fight City Hall,” Lee said. “We’re going to have to redo all the drawings. We have all the information. It just takes time to recreate this stuff.”

Public Works Director Steve Pause said it’s not a case of missing paperwork or a leadership change. Hu Honua hasn’t been fulfilling its obligations to get the permits that cover matters of life and safety.

The county sent the violation notice to Hu Honua after Pause met with Lee on Oct. 12 to review the plant’s permits, and after the two exchanged emails.

The county’s review of Hu Honua’s permits — or lack thereof — began after Pause was promoted to DPW director in August, assuming a position Lee himself held from 2008 to 2016.

The county’s building chief and deputy building chief are also relatively new and collectively they wanted to get up to speed on where Hu Honua’s permits stood, Pause said in an interview. They scheduled a meeting with Lee to discuss the matter.

The conversation didn’t go well, according to emails obtained through a public records request.

County Public Works Director Steve Pause says it’s surprising that such a major project, under a lot of public scrutiny, would not be on top of permits. Courtesy: Steve Pause

The documentation the county was looking for wasn’t available, nor were any adequate responses from the company about what it planned to do to fix the problem, Pause said. He felt he was getting the runaround.

He fired off a no-nonsense email to Lee within hours of the October meeting.

“You did not provide any suggestions for a timely solution or path to bring this project into compliance with applicable County building codes or permit requirements,” he wrote.

Pause said he was “troubled that a project that garners so much public attention, being overseen by you, the former director of County DPW, would have been completed on an undocumented ‘verbal agreement’ with County officials.”

He added: “No formal or written agreement was ever signed in order to allow your construction to be completed as a design-build project.”

Pause is dumbfounded that a high-profile project like Hu Honua, into which investors say they’ve sunk around $500 million, could possibly be this far along and be out of compliance with so many permits.

“One would think he’d probably want to be doing things by the book,” Pause told Civil Beat.

Richard Wallsgrove, an assistant professor of law at the University of Hawaii, said it’s a troubling sign if Hu Honua is out of compliance with county permits now, even before the plant fires up.

“It’s an industrial facility that sits in the backyard of a residential neighborhood,” he said. “The permits are about protecting the health and welfare of the community.”

Julann Sonomura, building division chief, said Hu Honua “started down the path of doing this piecemeal permit process.”

Lee called it “incremental permitting,” meaning instead of getting one permit for an entire structure, the company received multiple smaller authorizations as it navigated the construction process.

But according to Pause and Sonomura, many of Hu Honua’s design plans and permit applications simply don’t exist in county records.

“We don’t have the plans so we don’t know what was approved,” Sonomura said. “It’s a huge mess.”

Lee said the county is mistaken.

“The permits are in order. We discussed this with the previous leadership,” Lee said.

Pause has only been on the job for a few months, he added, saying, “He doesn’t know the history.”

Before getting hit with the notice of violation, Lee submitted a schedule to the county for how he was going to address the permit issues. Pause and the building division officials found the timeline lacking as well.

“Your schedule contains multiple tasks related to DPW’s role, which includes permit issuance and final inspection. What is glaringly absent are the steps you plan take to achieve these goals,” Pause wrote. “The Building Division does not have the staff to manage your project, much less provide guidance on what you should well know the permitting process to be.”

Read the county’s notice of violation and correspondence with Hu Honua:

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