"Surfers vs. the Superferry"
by Jerry Mander & Koohan Paik
February 25, 2009
We don't ordinarily seek inspirational models of grassroots uprisings--especially against global corporate-military boondoggles--from surfer beaches on luscious tropical islands. So it surprises colleagues on the left when we tell them they might check out some surprising events on the small "outer" islands in Hawaii that may have an impact on grand US aspirations for military domination of the Pacific basin. Few mainlanders have heard about it, but Hawaii is up in arms.
It all started in 2001 as a purportedly modest "local" effort to offer inter-island ferry service to "help local people more easily visit their relatives on other islands, and carry their farm produce to market." Most locals liked the idea but soon found that this ferry, the gigantic Hawaii Superferry, was an environmental nightmare. It uses far more fuel (in total and per person) than jet planes. It races at high speed (40-45 miles per hour) through zones teeming with endangered humpback whales, dolphins and rare sea turtles. It could transport dangerous invasive species to pristine islands. And it carries hundreds of cars to tiny places already choking on traffic.
Environmentalists demanded an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its Hawaii equivalent (HEPA). But the Hawaii Superferry Company, with strong support from Governor Linda Lingle, the ambitious right-wing Republican lately famous for introducing Sarah Palin at the Republican convention, refused.
By 2004 the lead investor (nearly $90 million) and new chair of the board for this "local" ferry project was New York City military financier John Lehman, Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy, a leading neocon with a famously aggressive military vision. (The Washington Post quoted him in 1984 as advocating first-strike nuclear strategies.) Lehman is a member of the Project for the New American Century and a 9/11 commissioner, but his great passion has been pushing for a vastly expanded, 600-ship Navy and a stronger US military presence in the Pacific to assuage mounting concerns about China as a future military superpower. After his company, J.F. Lehman, took over the Superferry project, Lehman appointed a new board with a majority of former top military brass. He later hired Adm. Thomas Fargo as CEO. Only four years ago Fargo was the commander of US military operations in the Pacific, answering directly to George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. So the question is this: why on earth would anyone need a board that qualifies as a mini-Pentagon to run a friendly transport for families and papayas between islands?
A key moment in this saga came in August 2007, on the small island of Kauai, called the Garden Island by tourist agencies for its folded green cliffs, cascading waterfalls and aloha spirit. But on this occasion about 1,500 locals--including a high percentage of Native Hawaiians, joined by people of Japanese and Filipino descent and a contingent of New Age haoles (recent white settlers seeking Shangri-La)--showed up at Nawiliwili Harbor to protest the Superferry's maiden voyage from Honolulu to Kauai. Several dozen surfers also played a catalytic role.
When the protesters saw the oncoming speeding colossus on the horizon--bigger than a football field, four stories high and capable of carrying as many as 866 people and 282 cars--the outrage grew. The anger had been magnified a few days earlier when Governor Lingle and Lehman's Superferry company indicated they would disregard a 5-0 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling demanding the boat suspend operations until it completed an EIS. As it approached, dozens of surfers and swimmers leaped into the water. Ignoring strident Coast Guard threats, they headed out under the Superferry's terrifying catamaran blades, stopping the ship dead in the water. It created a sort of Tiananmen Square standoff in the waters of Kauai.
It was a dangerous business, but next day when the Superferry returned, the crowd of protesters had grown, and the surfers and beach brigades had too. In the ensuing eighteen months, the boat has never returned to Kauai and now has only one daily run, from Honolulu to Maui. The "spirit of Nawiliwili" has become the stuff of legend in Hawaii.
On the island of Maui, similar outrage led to a series of large if less spectacular protests. But the Maui resistance settled on legal actions from groups like the Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow and the Kahului Harbor Coalition. It was these groups that had won the unanimous Hawaii Supreme Court ruling demanding the EIS. Everyone thought that decision would settle matters. Instead, it stimulated Lingle to demonstrate her Machiavellian chops by coercing the State Legislature (many of whose members had received Superferry largesse, as had Lingle) to pass a law theoretically circumventing the court ruling and permitting the boat to operate. It was an in-your-face move worthy of Bush/Cheney at their peak. Lingle's new law, Act Two, invented an EIS process with few features from NEPA or HEPA. The new law, for example, has no power to stop the Superferry from operating, no matter what the environmental findings. It's a fake EIS.
The Maui groups have gone back to court to charge that Act Two is unconstitutional--violating separation of powers and directly favoring a single company, among other problems. The final decision is expected any day.
Three weeks after Nawiliwili, another huge throng filled the 1,500 seats of Kauai's War Memorial Convention Hall, with many more outside, for a "public meeting" called by Governor Lingle. Imperiously she warned that she would not discuss whether there would be a Superferry--that had been decided. Her purpose was to instruct people that if they repeated their protests, they would be charged under new anti-terrorism laws that carry prison terms up to five years and/or a $10,000 fine.
Her statements were met with hoots and laughter and then a series of eloquent testimonies about protection of sacred lands (aina in Hawaiian) and sea creatures and the rights of local communities to protect themselves from invasive species and invasive corporations with militaristic intentions. Many indicated they were not opposed to a ferry if it would operate within community and environmental standards rather than those of an absentee owner with profit motives and military intentions. Others denounced Lingle's embrace of the project and its owner, suggesting she'd abandoned Hawaii for personal ambition.
Lingle's goals surely go beyond providing a useful local ferry. They certainly seemed to have far more to do with getting closer to powerful Republican Party figures--notably Lehman, slated, as the New York Times reported, to have been John McCain's chief of staff, had he won.
Throughout all this, the governor and the Superferry company denied the ferry's long-range military implications, despite earlier statements by Lehman and other executives about transporting Stryker tanks and other military services along with similar statements from the US Maritime Administration, which had issued a loan guarantee. Pacific Business News reported in March 2005 that Timothy Dick, Hawaii Superferry's original chair, confirmed that "Hawaii Superferry provided the Army with a cost analysis and expects to negotiate a long-term contract." The article also noted that "with Lehman's expertise, the Superferry plans to...carry military equipment and ferry vehicles from Oahu to the Big Island on a daily basis" and quoted Lehman saying that "the Superferry is strong enough to take Stryker vehicles."
Then in November the Superferry's manufacturer, Austal USA of Mobile, Alabama, was awarded a $1.6 billion Pentagon contract to build ten high-speed catamarans under the Navy's Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) program in preparation for possible future conflicts with China. The model that Austal submitted for that contract competition was almost identical to the Hawaii Superferry's large-scale, aluminum-hulled high-speed catamaran design, except for military fittings and accommodations. The fact that the Superferry was already in the water, proving its seaworthiness while the JHSV contract was being considered, suggests that it may have always been intended as a prototype or demo model for the larger deal. It also explains the consistent refusals to do an EIS, which might have delayed getting the boat operational and visible.
Two years earlier, Lehman had also purchased a shipyard, Atlantic Marine, adjacent to Austal in Mobile. It's not yet clear if Lehman's company, or Superferry, stands to gain from the Austal award, possibly by subcontracting aspects of that huge construction project, but speculation in Hawaii runs wild.
All parties await the next ruling from the Hawaii Supreme Court on the Maui appeal. A new diverse grassroots community of activists on Kauai is warily assessing whether it will again need to respond. Will the company try to send the boat back to Kauai? Or will the Superferry quit Hawaii altogether as too much trouble, selling the boat for military uses, or to someplace with no activist surfers? As for Lingle's future, it's not bright. While touring with Palin during the presidential campaign, Lingle was quoted saying that Barack Obama's "claim" to be from Hawaii is "disingenuous." That enraged the Hawaiian public more than the Superferry. She may no longer be politically viable.