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Dairy suit splits island

LIHUE — A lawsuit demanding Hawaii Dairy Farms complete an environmental assessment for its proposed dairy in Mahaulepu Valley has added fuel to a fiery situation.

Some believe the suit is premature and without merit; simply another attack on Kauai agriculture. Others applaud the action, saying it is necessary to prevent irreversible harm to a pristine environment.

In an emailed statement, HDF spokeswoman Amy Hennessey wrote the dairy would continue working with the state Department of Health and County of Kauai to complete required steps in the permitting process.

“Our team is considering its options going forward in light of the lawsuit and will share its plans as soon as possible,” she wrote. “We have not yet received the filing to review, so we can’t really comment more than we already have. We hope to have an update later this week.”

Hennessey did not respond directly to questions about whether HDF would consider an environmental assessment.

Earlier this week, she called the lawsuit an “insidious attack on local food.” And in its “zeal to protect its narrow commercial interests,” she said the plaintiff, Kawailoa Development, has proven it doesn’t care about the public good or ensuring Hawaii’s ability to produce local food.

Kawailoa, which owns the Grand Hyatt Resort & Spa and the Poipu Bay Golf Course, filed suit in 5th Circuit Court July 10. It claims its interests would be adversely affected should the 1,800-cow dairy move into the neighborhood.

The resort and golf course are less than three miles from the proposed dairy site.

HDF is basing its dairy on New Zealand’s rotational grazing model, which allows for even application of manure for proper fertilization and wastewater management, according to HDF. 

In the 12-page complaint, attorneys wrote that the resort owner relies on a pristine surrounding environment in order to attract and maintain its business, and that adverse impacts from the dairy — including pollution, odors and flies — pose a direct threat to the operation and a health risk to resort employees and guests. 

Kawailoa says an EA is clearly required by Hawaii’s environmental laws, and necessary to allow for the public to actively participate in the process. It also says it tried to obtain information about the impact from the proposed dairy, but got nowhere. 

“After no response was received, the owner … was left with no choice but to file the lawsuit,” Kawailoa wrote in a statement. “The project will have significant and long-lasting effects on Kauai, and it is extremely important that the community have input before irreversible decisions are made.”

Diann Hartman, a spokeswoman for the Hyatt, said she could not comment on the suit other than to say it would not impact resort operations.

In April, a group of concerned Kauai residents sent a letter to Larry Dill, chief engineer of the Public Works Department, requesting the county reconsider allowing HDF to move forward with the $17.5 million, 582-acre dairy. It accused HDF of gambling with the health of the environment in and around Poipu. Dill responded a week later, saying the county understood the concerns raised but was satisfied that the appropriate regulatory oversight was in place.

Since then, the county’s position on the matter has not changed, according to spokeswoman Mary Daubert. Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. said it is “unfortunate” the resort owner chose to take legal action.

“We’re here to support agriculture that supports food self-sufficiency statewide,” he said. “We continue to be in dialog with the state Department of Health, Hawaii Dairy Farms and Kawailoa Development to try to resolve differences and community concerns.”

Among those who signed the letter to Dill in April was Koloa resident and retired attorney Bridget Hammerquist. She believes the lawsuit is appropriate and necessary. If HDF is confident that its operations won’t have negative impacts, it should be perfectly willing to do an EA, she said.

Jerry Ornellas of the Kauai County Farm Bureau spoke candidly about the suit. It is “unbelievable” and a “poor strategic move” on the part of the resort owner, he said.

“People living in glass houses should not throw stones,” he said, referring to the resort and its owner. “They’re right on the ocean. If they have a spill, what happens then? I think they’re backing themselves into a corner.”

To date, DOH has not received a dairy farm permit application from HDF, according to spokeswoman Janice Okubo. The dairy has submitted the building plans for the farm, which is a first step in the process. 

“DOH is currently reviewing the building plans, however, another critical step in the process is a meeting with the proposed operators and submission of a finalized business plan which shows a formal relationship between the farm operator and a milk pasteurizing plant,” Okubo wrote. “It’s too early in the process for DOH to estimate a timetable for approvals.”

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