February 13, 2024

Search and Rescue Soldiers and Airmen attached to Hawaii National Guard's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and high-yield Explosive (CBRNE) Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP) unit assisted Maui County and State officials in the search and recovery efforts of Lahaina, August 10, 2023. (by Master Sgt. Andrew Jackson, courtesy of Hawaii National Guard, CC BY 2.0 DEED via Flickr).

Fire Blanketed Lahaina in Toxic Debris. Where Can They Put It? – the New York Times

Crews are sending thousands of truckloads of debris to a temporary disposal site, alarming Native Hawaiian residents and those seeking to protect a prized coral reef.

When a firestorm consumed the Hawaii town of Lahaina last year, killing 100 people, it left behind a toxic wasteland of melted batteries, charred propane tanks, and miles of debris tainted by arsenic and lead.

Crews have already removed some of the most hazardous items, shipping them out for disposal on the mainland. Now begins the even more formidable task of collecting hundreds of thousands of tons of additional debris and soil — enough to cover five football fields about five stories high. Even as excavators began filling dump trucks this month, the question of where it should all ultimately go remained unanswered.

For now, the county has chosen a “temporary” dump site in Olowalu, a few miles south of Lahaina on the West Maui coastline. There, just up the hill from a vital coral reef and an important ecosystem for manta rays, residents worry that dumping dangerous waste into the area could create a fresh disaster.

“It hurts,” said Foster Ampong, 65, who has family members who lost homes in Lahaina and spends much of his time in Olowalu helping other relatives farm taro. “I’m very much worried about the future of Olowalu…”

The fire that swept through Lahaina burned through more than 2,000 buildings, leaving little more than cinder blocks, car husks and piles of ash behind. To prepare for rebuilding, crews have started clearing plots of land, with excavators digging down six inches to remove contaminated soil.

County leaders want the task done with urgency. In the midst of the rainy season, storms already have sent runoff into the ocean, turning the water along the coastline cloudy. Meanwhile, thousands of people who lived in Lahaina remain without permanent residences and are eager to get rebuilding underway. Many have left the island in search of stability.

Richard Bissen Jr., the mayor of Maui County, said that he agrees that the Olowalu site should not be permanent. But for the sake of the Lahaina survivors, he said, he does not want to delay work at the temporary location as part of a rebuilding process that is expected to take years.

“While there is no easy path forward, I must navigate these contentious issues with the greater good as my foremost sense of kuleana,” Mr. Bissen said at a meeting this month, using a Hawaiian word to emphasize his sense of responsibility…

One of the chief concerns about the wildfire debris is the presence of heavy metals in the ash and soil. While perhaps not an acute health threat, prolonged exposure is a concern, said Peter Guria, who supervises hazardous debris issues at the federal Environmental Protection Agency in the region. To prevent clouds of toxic dust from swirling through the air, crews have sprayed a soil stabilizer across much of Lahaina…

The coast of Olowalu is popular with snorkelers and filled with abundant sea life. In 2017, the coral reef offshore became a focal point for protection by the nonprofit Mission Blue, which advocates to protect the ocean.

The organization said the reef acts as a sort of nursery to enhance reefs on other islands nearby. It also supports a large population of manta rays.

“It’s environmentally precious,” said Tom Gruber, an adviser to Mission Blue. “It’s like Yosemite. You wouldn’t put a toxic waste dump upstream of Yosemite…”

Learn more:

Excerpt from the Washington Post (01-13-2024):
Officials approve contested dump for toxic Maui wildfire waste

WAILUKU, Maui — County officials approved a plan to store a mountain of ash and debris from last year’s Lahaina wildfires, part of an emergency disposal strategy that faced intense opposition in recent weeks.

Critics had called the proposal both too hasty and too risky in its approach to mitigating a threat from the toxins left behind by the wind-driven inferno in Lahaina last August. But late Friday, the Maui County Council voted 6-2 to allow a fleet of trucks to begin depositing the material on a hillside in Olowalu, a small coastal enclave a few miles from Lahaina.

“I think we as a government are doing the best that we can,” said council member Tom Cook, who voted for the plan. “We are being responsible, and we’ll prove it over time.”

Other supporters on the panel agreed that it did not make sense to wait longer to move the ashes so that other disposal options could be explored.

“Lahaina needs our help. … Cleaning up Lahaina will give people hope,” said council member Shane Sinenci…



Excerpt from the Washington Post (01-11-2024):
Fight brews in Lahaina over where to dump toxic Maui wildfire waste

LAHAINA, Hawaii — Tucked behind a wind-swept hilltop a short distance from Eddy Garcia’s lush Maui farm is a construction project prompted by the catastrophic Lahaina wildfire that has Garcia up in arms.

Work crews using heavy machinery have been working for weeks on what government officials call a “temporary containment site” for the mountain of ash and debris left behind by the blaze. Some locals like Garcia have questioned whether the project foreshadows a permanent “toxic dump” in Olowalu — a sleepy seaside enclave a few miles south of Lahaina — that would pose a potential threat to his livelihood and the environment.

Garcia, who’s made a career out of growing organic produce using earthworms to improve his soil, says even the temporary site, up for final approval this week, must be stopped and has emerged as one of its most vocal opponents. He helped to organize a December demonstration along the highway leading to the site and to collect thousands of signatures on a petition opposing the project.

“I’m fighting for my community and future generations,” he said…

Video Clips:

Hawaii News Now (01-12-2024):
During hours-long public testimony, Maui residents urge council to reconsider temporary dump site

Hawaii News Now (01-12-2024):
Hundreds of protestors rally in West Maui against temporary dump site for wildfire debris

Save Olowalu (01-16-2024):
Save Maui’s Olowalu Reef and Hawaiian Culture Sanctuary

Hawaii News Now (01-08-2024):
Family with deep ties to Olowalu asks Maui Council to reconsider location of dump site

Island News (01-05-2024):
The embattled Olowalu on Maui will not become a permanent site for wildfire debris disposal

KHON2 News (12-11-2023:
New data shows toxic substances found on Maui

Hawaii News Now (01-08-2024):
Permanent Maui wildfire debris dump site narrowed down to 3 locations

They say fire survivors will have a say in the final decision.

Jesse G. Wald (01-21-2024):
Lahaina FIRE Update – the CLEANUP Begins on MAUI

Lahaina Maui FIRE Update. New Drone Video of the Entire Burn Zone taken in January 2024 shows the progress made in the early stages of phase 2 of the cleanup process. Watch the entire video to see what is happening behind the dust fences in our beloved Lahaina town.


More on Pollution (Plastic, Hydrocarbon, Waste Water + Trash)

Plastic & garbage on the coast in Pulau Bunaken, Sulawesi, Indonesia, August 2014 (by Fabio Achilli CC BY 2.0 DEED via Flickr).

The world dumps 2,000 truckloads of plastic into the ocean each day. Here’s where a lot of it ends up – CNN

The western coast of Java in Indonesia is popular with surfers for its world-famous breaks. There’s a majestic underwater world to explore, too. But it’s impossible to surf or snorkel without running into plastic water bottles, single-use cups and food wrappers. The garbage sometimes forms islands in the sea, and much of it washes ashore, accumulating as mountains on the beach…

We’re All Plastic People now – PBS

Introduced by actor and environmentalist Ted Danson, We’re All Plastic People Now investigates the hidden story of plastic and its effects on human health. In an era of throw-away ease, convenience has cost us our well-being. We’re All Plastic People Now asks the question, how much evidence do we need before we decide to take action?

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