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West // West Oahu News
Christina O’Connor

Plant Pest Treatment Facility Now Under Construction In Kunia

A facility that will use radiation to kill plant pests broke ground at the agricultural research center in Kunia last month.

The facility comes to Kunia after local agricultural company Pa‘ina Hawaii LLC first proposed a site near Honolulu International Airport in 2005, following years of litigation that challenged the initial location.

Local nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, representing Concerned Citizens of Honolulu, argued that the airport site posed a number of threats that could be detrimental to human and environmental health.

“We questioned why this is going to be placed in a highly urbanized area where, if there were an accident or an intentional act, a large portion of the island’s population could be affected, as well as a large area of the city rendered uninhabitable,” explained Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, adding that his group also was concerned that the site was in a tsunami evacuation zone and in close proximity to potential targets for terrorist attacks including Pearl Harbor and Hickam. “All in all, it seemed like a silly place to put 1 million curies of radioactive material.” The facility will use a radioactive material called cobalt 60 to irradiate produce.

Earthjustice alleged that placing the facility near the airport could amplify the negative consequences if an accident or attack was to occur.

Initially, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was not going to require the facility to undergo an environmental review, as irradiators are considered categorically safe and are exempt from review. But given the specifics of this project and its proposed location, Earthjustice challenged that exemption.

“We said this is not an irradiator being placed in a cornfield in Kansas far away from anyone,” Henkin said, “this is an irradiator being placed in a major metropolitan area with all of the natural and man-induced hazards.

“(Pa‘ina) should at least look at it and do some form of review of potential impacts and also look at alternate locations.”

Following Earthjustice’s challenge, NRC ruled that Pa‘ina must do the review. The Kunia center was identified as a potential site for the facility during the litigation and envi- ronmental assessment processes. In the end, Pa‘ina Hawaii decided to move its operation to Kunia for what it says are space and cost-saving pur- poses. The company, meanwhile, still retains its license for the airport location.

Pa‘ina Hawaii initially sought to build near the airport because of the convenience it would provide to shippers for proximity to export sites. While Michael Kohn said the company is pleased with the Kunia location, he does question the necessity of the proceedings and the delay the case caused.

“Several million dollars were spent on the environmental assessment,” Kohn said. “The taxpayer had to pay for it. The six- year delay really hurt the industry and farmers.

“We are truly happy to be part of the Kunia community,” Kohn said.

The years of litigation, he claimed, have nothing to do with the location change, maintaining that it was the company’s decision to move the operation to Kunia.

“We had more room there, and the lease was less expensive,” he said. “That was the reason that we went to Kunia, but we never gave up the airport (location), and we have no intention of giving it up.”

Kohn also added that future plans to build an irradiator by the airport are “certainly possible,” depending on how operations go at Kunia.

Kohn said that one of the benefits of treating produce with irradiators versus other technologies is that the product can be treated in the final export box. He also explained that irradiators are more cost-effective than comparable technologies.

While Earthjustice and Concerned Citizens of Honolulu contend the new location reduces many of the risks that were associated with the airport site, they say that risk has not been eliminated entirely.

“The Kunia location is safer, but that doesn’t mean that there are no risks and potential for accident,” Henkin said.

While he acknowledged that the likelihood of an accident occurring is very small, he said that Earthjustice considers other available technologies to be safer alternatives.

Henkin also asserted that the new location has transportation risks associated with it, as the radioactive material will likely need to be trucked to Kunia.

For Concerned Citizens of Honolulu, it’s something of a bittersweet outcome. “We don’t want (the irradiator) at all,” group member Darryn Ng said, adding that he feels a non-nuclear technology would be preferred. “We didn’t want it to be in Kunia or anyplace else.” “We question whether nuclear irradiation is a good idea,” Henkin added. Nonetheless, he said Earthjustice is satisfied that as a result of the firm’s involvement, an environmental review was conducted.

“We think that (the Kunia location) is an envi- ronmentally preferred alternative, not the environmentally optimal alternative.”

Pa‘ina Hawaii estimates that construction should be completed by early September.

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