In a continual struggle for environmental justice, the neighborhoods of minority and impoverished communities are often disproportionately exposed to pollution sources such as landfills and fossil fuel plants. However, in the small Hawaiian town of Kahuku, residents have been fighting a new battle for environmental justice against an unlikely enemy – wind turbines.
Several groups of Kahuku residents have opposed the island’s most recent wind development project, known as Na Pua Makani. Located on the North Shore of Oahu, this area already houses existing wind turbines, but the Na Pua Makani turbines are the tallest and closest to homes to date. Unfortunately, because wind power is renewable, the protests and uproar amongst Kahuku residents have received little attention or acknowledgment by local and national media outlets and government officials. However, Kahuku citizens represent a new wave of environmental justice advocates who are proving that renewable energy can be just as guilty as fossil fuel plants of committing environmental injustice.
The Hawaii State Energy Office’s website summarizes Hawaii’s goal of generating 100 percent clean energy by 2045, which has spurred the emergence of renewable energy projects like Na Pua Makani. According to KOHN2 News, this particular project dated back to 2013 and started with presentations to community associations and neighborhood boards, followed by four years of public environmental impact statement, permit, and preservation planning meetings. Construction began in early 2019, and the project finished the development of its turbines in February of this year. Testing of the turbines started this past month and will be operational by the end of the summer.
Kahuku residents have met both the planning and construction phases of these turbines with intense opposition. During the five-week transportation phase of the turbine parts to Kahuku in October of last year, the Hawaii Star Advertiser reported that police arrested over 200 protesters attempting to prevent the turbine convoy from reaching its destination. A press release by the non-profit organization Keep the North Shore Country details the group’s most recent attempt to halt construction of the wind farm by requesting the Hawaii Supreme Court blocks its opening by challenging one of the project’s licenses.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is achieved when all citizens have equal protection from environmental hazards and equal access to the decision-making process required to have a healthy environment. Although renewable energies are generally thought of as better for the environment and human health than fossil fuels, they still come with inherent risks and drawbacks. Therefore, Na Pua Makani should be viewed as environmental injustice because these turbines are being placed in a community that is primarily made up of minorities and is less wealthy than other areas of the island.
Regarding Kahuku’s population demographics, the 2018 census shows that 24 percent are Islanders, and 35 percent of the population identifies as being two or more races and ethnicities. Only 10 percent of the Kahuku population identifies as White. In an interview earlier this year, a member of the oppositional group Ku Kia’i Kahuku stated, “This is an environmental justice issue. Why is it that this community is getting turbines and not Hawaii Kai?” This statement is compelling because the 2018 census also shows that the wealthy Hawaii Kai area is made up of 27 percent of individuals who identify as White with only 6 percent identifying as Islanders and 17 percent as two or more races and ethnicities. Whereas the per capita income of a Kahuku resident is near $29,000, the per capita income of a Hawaii Kai resident is almost double at about $53,500.
Aside from the demographics of where these turbines are being placed, the health concerns associated with wind turbines have the potential to make Kahuku an unhealthy environment. Members of Ku Kia’i Kahuku report issues with low-frequency sounds created by the turbines known as infrasound and the shadows created by the rotating blades of the turbines known as shadow flickers. In an interview in October of last year, Tara Burlew claimed that since moving to the North Shore community near the existing wind farm, “I’ve had a lot of headaches, fatigue, occasionally I feel like this weird vertigo dizziness that comes over.” Burlew isn’t the only community member to claim to have developed health-related issues associated with wind turbines. In a video posted by Ku Kia’i Kahuku, protesters brandished signs saying, “protect our keiki [children],” and youth claim that they feel nauseous and sick from the existing wind turbines, making it hard to study.
That’s not to say that renewable energy is not an overwhelmingly positive investment. According to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, wind energy is a clean fuel source, sustainable, and has little impact on the environment and health when compared to conventional power plants. Nevertheless, despite the benefits of wind energy, considerations must still be taken to ensure environmental justice amongst all citizens regardless of race or socioeconomic status. As stated by Choon James, a Kahuku resident arrested at an earlier protest, “I’m all for green energy. But environmental justice has to be a priority.”
The New York Times recently announced that Democrats would soon make public a policy roadmap that ties the environment to racial justice and calls for prioritizing new investments in energy and infrastructure in minority communities. However, as the town of Kahuku has demonstrated, as more renewable energy projects emerge in Hawaii and nationally, these energy and infrastructure investments need to emphasize community involvement and support. If we don’t give this careful consideration to where and why we are placing renewable energy infrastructure, we run the risk of subjecting minority and impoverished communities to a new and “renewable” form of environmental injustice.