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Hawaii Superferry bill passes key Senate vote

HONOLULU — The Hawaii Superferry will have to make stronger efforts to avoid whale strikes, crack down on invasive species and closely inspect vehicles under a proposal that passed a key Senate committee Thursday.

The compromise bill would allow the high-speed Superferry to resume service from Oahu to Maui and Kauai in about two weeks, if it passes votes in the full Senate and House.

These additional restrictions on the Superferry were added as a result of 25 hours of public meetings across the state this week, when senators heard from Neighbor Island residents who overwhelmingly opposed the state's only passenger and vehicle boat.

"I don't think any of us wants to stop the Superferry from operating. That's not the point," said Sen. Kalani English, D-East Maui-Lanai-Molokai, who voted against the bill. "These are all conditions the company said they could do."

Agreement on these conditions is a sign that senators, several of whom resisted the idea of passing a law overriding the courts to let the Superferry sail, are willing to move ahead with the proposal. It should get a vote in the full 25-member Senate on Monday.

Superferry officials also consented to the amendments because they stop short of too-strict rules like speed limits that would have disrupted the service's schedule.

"We're anxious to get back in service," said Tig Krekel, the vice chairman of J.F. Lehman & Co., the project's main investor. "It does sound workable, from what I heard inside the hearing room."

These conditions were taken from some of the 29 suggestions submitted by environmentalists who wanted the Legislature to impose specific requirements on the Superferry rather than leaving enforcement entirely up to Gov. Linda Lingle, a ferry supporter.

Specifically, the new bill would force the Superferry to:

Apply for an incidental-take permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that could set operating conditions but give the Superferry some liability protection in the event of whale strikes.

Request an observer from the National Marine Fisheries Service to assist the Superferry in avoiding and reporting if it hits endangered humpback whales.

Post signs and notify passengers of bans on gill net fishing nets, rocks, soil and dirt.

Require passengers to declare all plants, fruits and seeds to cut down on the potential that coqui frogs, fire ants or caterpillars could spread to other islands on the boat.

Inspect the trunks, pickup truck beds and undercarriages of all vehicles before boarding.

"This is certainly a step in the right direction," said Jeff Mikulina, director of the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club, one of three groups that sued the Superferry. "There could definitely be additional provisions added to the bill."

The new bill keeps in place other measures that would permit the Superferry to operate while the state completes an environmental study ordered by Hawaii courts.

Those provisions put the governor in charge of creating and enforcing environmental rules for the Superferry, provide oversight of the governor's actions, prohibit the company from suing the state and open an investigation into why the Superferry was granted an exception to Hawaii's environmental laws.

"This thing has been bungled from the very beginning. We're in this fiasco right now because wrong decisions were made," said Sen. Russell Kokubun, D-Hilo-Naalehu, who voted against the bill.

It's unclear whether the House will be willing to adopt the new Senate measures because Democratic leaders have said they didn't want amendments to the bill that could create dissent and jeopardize its chances of passage.

A separate bill moving through the House does not contain the Senate's additional operating conditions.

Both chambers have until the end of the emergency session on Wednesday to approve the Superferry bill.

Without it, the Superferry has threatened to leave Hawaii because it couldn't afford to wait the months or years it would take for an environmental study to be completed.

The $300 million Superferry project was to start service with a four-story catamaran built to carry up to 866 passengers and 282 vehicles on two daily round trips.

A second giant ferry is being built in Mobile, Ala. It is intended to serve the Big Island in 2009, but its future is now also in doubt.