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Coast Guard Ramps Up to Enforce Security Zone for Embattled Superferry

As the U.S. Coast Guard established a temporary security zone in waters of Nawiliwili Harbor, Kauai and around adjacent jetties, Hawaii Superferry (HSF) executives were planning their next move. Last week’s interruption of service just as the new transport concept kicked off has spawned legal challenges, as well as anger among many. Countless people were dismayed by protesters, and an inadequate law enforcement response to those protests, that prevented average Hawaiian citizens from traveling freely between the various islands. A press release issued by the U.S. Coast Guard outlined new security zone restrictions on September 4, and also spelled out, among other things, stiff penalties for protesters who violate the new measures.

The Coast Guard press release announced efforts, in support of joint federal, state and county plans, to plan for the next voyage of the Hawaii Superferry to Kauai. The date of the next voyage was uncertain, but Coast Guard assets were nevertheless being assembled to enforce security zones in Nawiliwili Harbor. The Coast Guard release also stressed that the security zone would “allow people who choose to demonstrate to do so safely, peacefully and legally, and will allow the Superferry and its passengers to safely use the port.” But the Coast Guard also warned those who would not comply with the new measures. According to the Coast Guard document, “Protestors who fail to comply with orders pertaining to the security zones, purposely injure or threaten to injure an enforcement officer or attempt to destruct or interfere with vessels may be punished by imprisonment for up to 10 years, and may be fined up to $25,000. Any vessel used to violate a security zone, including surfboards, kayaks and canoes, may be immediately confiscated and forfeited.”

On Thursday, the graceful twin-hulled, $85-million ferry Alakai sat idle awaiting the edict of local courts. The vessel has been prevented by court order from sailing to Maui and by protesters from going to Kauai. Locally, a small contingent of protesters, under the thin veil of environmental protectionism, hopes to persuade another judge to impose stricter bans. The innovative 450-foot ferry is designed to carry as many as 286 vehicles and more than 800 passengers between the island of Oahu, Honolulu’s home, and two neighboring islands, Maui and Kauai. The new service does not necessarily cater to the tourism trades or hope to compete with established freight services. Instead, former Navy Secretary John Lehman’s dream is to bring affordable, comfortable and practical transportation to the island’s 1.2 million residents, while breathing new life into countless small businesses that could not otherwise hope to make a living under conditions that make inter-island commerce all but unaffordable.

At issue now is the question of whether the Superferry should have been subject to an environmental assessment before beginning service. Although the new service enjoys wide local support, an environmental impact statement could potentially derail the service if it uncovers an unnecessary impact on the local ecosystem. Despite the best of intentions and a host of state-of-the-art environmental protections built into the new craft, some local residents remain unconvinced. And with two previous court rulings supporting HSF’s position that no environmental assessment was required, investors and stakeholders plowed ahead with their ambitious plans.

The Superferry’s primary equity investor is J. F. Lehman and Company, which put up $85 million, but the federal Maritime Administration also provided a loan guarantee of $140 million. However, on Monday, August 27, two days after commencing service, a temporary restraining order (TRO) was issued by Judge Cardoza of the Maui circuit court, stopping HSF from going to Maui, leaving Kauai unaffected. The issuance of the TRO followed the August 23 ruling by the Hawaii Supreme Court that an environmental assessment should have been performed by the State Department of Transportation (DOT) in connection with the port improvements completed by DOT for HSF in Maui.

On the following Wednesday, another hearing was conducted in front of Judge Cardoza, with HSF hopeful of removing the TRO. Opponents, primarily consisting of Sierra Club activists, were asking for a new injunction that would not allow Superferry to operate while an environmental assessment was conducted by the State. An environmental assessment can take as many as six months to document. Additionally, opponents lobbied to stop Superferry from operating at any State port. Eventually, the TRO was extended until evidentiary hearings could be held; scheduled for September 6-11.

On last Monday's trip to Kauai, protesters on surfboards blocked the harbor entrance and the Coast Guard was unable to control them. After almost three hours of waiting just outside the harbor, and being informed by the Coast Guard that safe passage could not be assured, HSF executives made the prudent and safe decision to turn around and head back to Honolulu with a nearly full load of passengers. Service there will be suspended until the Coast Guard can assure safe passage -- something it appears to be making headway with, as MarEx goes on-line with this edition.

For its part, HSF has contested the extension of the Maui TRO and reportedly intends to vigorously contest the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary and/or permanent injunction. The company will also strongly contest any expansion of the TRO or of a preliminary and/or permanent injunction to the company’s operations in Kauai or Oahu. Apparently, the U.S. Maritime Administration is also involved and has intervened with the court on behalf of the Superferry. Elsewhere, HSF has been working to preserve customer relationships by assisting customers inconvenienced by the interruption of operations.

Editor’s note: The Hawaii Superferry is being featured this week on the National Geographic Channel. Tune in to see how the vessel was built, delivered and went through sea trials. We watched it last night and found it to be entertaining and informative.