Wharf Plans Spark Controversy

Community questions renovations.

The state is moving forward with plans to renovate ferry facilities on Kaunakakai Wharf with a new waiting area, restrooms, sewer main and two water lines to supply water in case of fire, detailed in a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) released last month.

According to a Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) spokesperson, the existing facilities are “inadequate to support current and future ferry service operations.” The $4 million project will be paid for with state and federal funds. Construction on the wharf is expected to start in September and last nine months, according to the EA.

But some have questioned the need for renovations – including the company that operates the ferry. Despite the project’s name — Ferry System Improvements — Dave Jung, president of Sea Link Hawaii, said his company did not ask for any renovations.

“We don’t feel they’re needed,” he said, referring to the new waiting area and restrooms.

Jung said the improvement most needed is dockside power, which would cut down on noise and pollution from the ferry and would save on costs that are now passed onto customers. Dockside power is available to other boats in the harbor but not to the ferry, meaning it must run on generator-power until it returns to Lahaina. Jung said he as been telling DOT about this need “for about 20 years.”

Still, he did not object to any of the state’s plans, saying, “Molokai needs whatever funding it can get to create jobs and update infrastructure.”

Commission Mana`o
Jung is not alone in his disappointment with the state’s plans. The Molokai Planning Commission (MoPC), which took up the issue at its meeting last Wednesday, expressed concern over the extent of planned construction.

The 12-inch and 8-inch wide fire water lines would start at the intersection of Maunaloa Highway and Kaunakakai Place and run underground to the end of the pier. This would require trenching that MoPC commissioners worried could contaminate the water and endanger marine life.

The EA acknowledged the ground under the wharf and Kaunakakai Place contains “subsurface hazardous waste, most likely a petroleum fuel product” that may be unearthed. The EA also outlined methods that would be used to contain the spread of contaminated soil.

But Commissioner Lori Buchanan said she thought the EA underestimated the impact construction would have on marine life.

“This assessment is filled with lies, and that’s just the beginning of it,” she said.

Commissioners also questioned the need for the renovation, suggesting the current covered waiting area for passengers is underused and the ferry’s ridership does not justify the multi-million dollar project.

“I still wonder why they’re building this thing other than the fact that they have funds, and if you don’t use it you lose it,” said Commissioner John Sprinzel.

In explaining the need for the renovation, the EA incorrectly states that there are no flights from Molokai to Maui, thus the ferry is the only “affordable direct inter-island transportation for access to employment, government, health services and education for the residents of Molokai.”

Sprinzel suggested instead of trenching, the pipes be installed above ground like the existing petroleum lines on the east side of the causeway. He also suggested abandoning the pipes and using a salt water pump to supply water in case of fire.

The EA states a salt water pump was considered but would require frequent maintenance. Such a pump previously in use at the harbor has “corroded beyond repair,” according to the EA.

MoPC’s jurisdiction ends at the shoreline, meaning they have little oversight for this construction. Molokai Staff Planner Mikal Torgerson explained to commissioners that state law gives the Department of Transportation (DOT) authority to do whatever it wants in commercial harbors without county agencies’ input.

“This is really advisory in the first place – they’re asking our opinion but they don’t necessarily have to get our approval,” Torgerson said.

The state would have to apply for permission to installed water pipes along Kaunakakai Place leading up to the wharf; that application would have to be approved by MoPC.

Below the Surface
Others in the community want to see more attention given to what is going on under the wharf. Kawela resident Jerry Johnson has been working for over 20 years to get culverts installed under the wharf to restore natural water currents and clean up the reef.

Johnson said it’s frustrating to see millions of dollars going toward ferry infrastructure and nothing toward cleaning up the reef.

“If you’re talking about working on the wharf, talk about doing something that matters,” said Johnson.

When the wharf was built, he said, it disrupted water flow, gradually replacing sandy beaches with heavy silt build-up. Johnson said he has written to the governor, senators and DOT to no effect.

“We just can’t seem to get anyone in the government interested in it,” he said. “I just feel like I’m running up against a stone wall and I don’t know why.”

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