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9-Misc: Court orders public oversight of 'biopharm' experiment in Hawai'i (USA)

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TITLE:  Court Orders Public Oversight of 'Biopharm' Experiment in Hawai'i
SOURCE: Earthjustice, USA
DATE:   11 Oct 2005

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Court Orders Public Oversight of 'Biopharm' Experiment in Hawai'i
Environmental Review Required for Genetically Engineered Algae Project

Kailua-Kona, HI-- Yesterday, citizen groups 'Ohana Pale Ke Ao, Kohanaiki
'Ohana, GMO Free Hawai'i, and Sierra Club, Hawai'i Chapter, represented
by Earthjustice, obtained a court judgment in their favor in a lawsuit
they brought in the Circuit Court of the State of Hawai'i, Third Circuit,
challenging the state Board of Agriculture's approval of a project to
mass-produce potentially dangerous genetically engineered algae on the
Kona coast of the Island of Hawai'i. Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth A.
Strance agreed with the citizen groups that the Board was required to
comply with the environmental review process under the Hawai'i
Environmental Policy Act (HEPA) before approving the project. The Court
granted the groups' request for a judgment declaring that, at minimum, an
environmental assessment (EA) was required for the project, and that the
Board's approval without such review was invalid.

"We're glad that the court upheld this important process of examining the
risks of this project and its alternatives," said Earthjustice attorney
Isaac Moriwake. "The state needs to be reminded that environmental review
is not a nuisance to be brushed aside, but a basic public duty of all

The challenged project proposes to manufacture, in an outdoor environment
at a state-owned technology park known as the Natural Energy Laboratory
Hawai'i (NELH), "biopharmaceutical" microalgae that is genetically
engineered to produce experimental and yet unapproved drugs. The state
Department of Agriculture assigned the genetically engineered organism a
heightened risk level because the project was the first of its kind and
posed unique concerns and risks.

Many in the Kona community expressed their concerns about the risks of
contamination of the coastal environment around the project area, which
is highly valued and regularly used by local residents, and the dangers
of human exposure to the experimental substances. The citizen groups and
others urged the Board to undertake HEPA review before approving the
project, but the Board ignored their pleas, failing even to give the
reason for its refusal.

The biopharm algae project would use state lands and, therefore, triggers
the requirement under HEPA that the state conduct an EA to determine
whether the project "may" have a significant effect on the environment,
in which case a more detailed environmental impact statement (EIS) would
have to be conducted. The Board, however, claimed in the lawsuit that
their permitting system was not subject to HEPA. The Board also argued
that EISs conducted several decades ago, when NELH was first built,
covered this particular project. The Court rejected these arguments,
noting during the hearing that HEPA applied to all agencies, and that the
prior EISs recognized future projects would require their own
environmental reviews.

"Introducing genetically engineered organisms to the ecologically
sensitive Kona coast poses significant environmental threats," said Jeff
Mikulina, Director of the Sierra Club, Hawai'i Chapter. "We appreciate
that the court is requiring the state to look before they leap."

"This case highlights the importance of citizen participation in the land
use decision making process and the need for agencies to examine the
environmental and cultural impacts of their decisions," said Karen Eoff,
president of Kohanaiki 'Ohana. "The court's ruling recognizes these
fundamental values."

"The court has upheld the protection of our unique and pristine Hawai'i
ecosystem," said GMO-Free Hawai'i member Nancy Redfeather. "Introduction
of any genetically engineered organisms must be carefully considered for
their long-term effects on our land and community."

Contact Info:
Isaac Moriwake, Earthjustice (808-599-2436)
Nancy Redfeather, GMO Free Hawai'i (808-322-2801)
Jeff Mikulina, Sierra Club (808-226-4987)
Karen Eoff, Kohanaiki 'Ohana (808-938-3580)


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