Friday, November 16, 2007

Hawaii Superferry readying for protests

The Associated Press November 16, 2007, 1:09PM ET text size: TT

Hawaii Superferry readying for protests

As the Hawaii Superferry prepares to sail again after winning challenges in court and at the state Capitol, the company now faces its most daunting obstacle -- more protests in the water.

The last time the 350-foot catamaran tried to dock at Kauai's Nawiliwili Harbor in August, it was turned away by a flotilla of protesters on canoes, kayaks and surfboards. They refused to budge and were encouraged by hundreds onshore.

The Coast Guard has been thrust into the middle of the emotional showdown and is now being forced into the difficult, unusual and possibly dangerous task of arresting Americans.

Coast Guard personnel previously failed to provide safe passage for the vessel as protesters heckled and splashed them with water. But the Coast Guard has repeatedly warned it will take immediate action next time around.

"We have practiced and prepared for the worst-case scenario, so we will be ready," Coast Guard spokesman Lt. John Titchen said Thursday. "We hope, ultimately, demonstrators can find a lawful way to voice their opinion."

An emergency expanded security zone has been established at Nawiliwili, as well as a designated area for protesters. The Coast Guard is also considering establishing a similar security zone at Maui's Kahului Harbor despite the fact that no protests in the water have been held there.

Anyone in violation of a security zone faces stiff federal penalties, including up 10 years in prison.

"I think it's fair to say we'll be ready to apprehend and detain people who do violate the security zone, whereas prior to this, we have demonstrated restraint," Titchen said.

The Coast Guard wouldn't comment about tactics, personnel or vessels it plans to deploy, but it's clear that a major effort is being mounted before the ferry's resumption of service in a few weeks. The Coast Guard has been training and bringing in personnel from the mainland.

One challenge the Coast Guard is dealing with is how to safely place a protester in custody, Titchen said.

"What we hope to see are law-abiding citizens. We hope people recognize the U.S. Coast Guard has a challenging role in this situation," he said.

The Superferry, which is in the process of bringing back some of 250 furloughed employees, is expected to announce a resumption of service date soon.

Judge Joseph Cardoza on Wednesday cleared the way for the Superferry to operate before a study of its potential to harm endangered whales and to damage the environment is completed.

He cited a new state law passed in an emergency legislative session in his decision to reverse his injunction against operation of Hawaii's first vehicle-passenger ferry service.

Attorney Isaac Hall, who represents three environmental groups that sued the Superferry, asked Cardoza to keep the Superferry out of service because of the threat to whales. He also warned that people will get hurt, saying if the injunction were dissolved, "the only way left to secure justice is in the water."

Hall did not respond to phone messages left at his office Thursday.

Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, commander of the Coast Guard's 14th District, has acknowledged that officials have underestimated the protesters in the past. She has said no one was prepared "for that level of passion and determination to halt the Superferry's transit."

The Coast Guard's normal role in Hawaii is to protect Hawaii's shores and to rescue mariners in distress. Now, it is being asked to be an enforcer.

"The Coast Guard is used to reaching in the water and pulling the hand of someone who desperately wants to be rescued. Now we have people who want to make a statement," she said.

State Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kauai-Niihau, said he expects protests since so many people are unhappy with how the situation has played out. He voted against the Superferry's resumption of service during the recent special session.

"I would hope and encourage the Coast Guard as well as the state to not overreact and to exercise restraint," he said. "Should a situation develop ... I don't think it's helpful to escalate the tension by an unnecessary show of force."

Hooser said the Superferry needs to take its time and to reach out to the community before resuming service.

"If they are serious about doing the community outreach and mending some of the rifts and not having a big scene on opening day, they should do that outreach and take the time it needs to make it work," he said.

A Superferry spokeswoman said CEO John Garibaldi was not available for comment.

State Transportation Director Barry Fukunaga said he doesn't know what to expect from possible protesters.

"Hopefully, they understand that there are significant penalties associated with violating the laws," he said. "So hopefully that would give them reason to pause and not participate in something like that."