Fire blanketed Lahaina in toxic debris. Where can they put it?

A man sets up an umbrella in front of a Lahaina Strong informational sign, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, Kaanapali Beach in Lahaina, Hawaii. Residents and survivors still dealing with the aftermath of the August wildfires in Lahaina have mixed feelings as tourists begin to return to the west side of Maui, staying in hotels still housing some displaced residents. A group of survivors is camping on the resort beach to protest and raise awareness for better long-term housing options for those displaced. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

OLOWALU, Maui — 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.”

On an island known for its natural beauty and pristine waters, few good options have emerged for managing a debris field as vast as Lahaina’s. Officials considered shipping all of the waste off the island but concluded that would be far too costly. They have promised that all the material at the Olowalu dump site will later be dug up and relocated to a permanent tomb, but no final destination has been selected. Olowalu residents fear that the search for a permanent site will lose steam once the material gets its initial burial.

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 6 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,” Bissen said at a meeting this month, using a Hawaiian word to emphasize his sense of responsibility.

Dump trucks are now rumbling each day onto the dump site on the grass-covered slopes that rise up from the Olowalu coastline. It may ultimately take about 40,000 loads to complete the task, county officials say. During transport, the debris is wrapped in a liner to prevent it from blowing into the air, although residents have complained that the wraps have fallen away once the debris is discarded.

Dr. Cory Koger, a chemist and toxicologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said stormwater protection has been installed to prevent runoff from reaching the dump site. An overflow pond and pumping systems are in place to help handle any major downpours.

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.

While the remaining material contains dangerous elements, it is not toxic enough to be considered hazardous waste of the kind that can only be legally disposed of at specially certified sites, Guria said. After other wildfires in places like California, he said, much of the debris has gone into regular landfills.

The Olowalu site has more stringent protections than a standard landfill, Guria said, but it can be a challenge to fully reassure community members about both their health, and the environment.

“It’s just difficult to try to convey to them that the engineering that they are utilizing is safe and is going to be safe,” Guria said.

In Olowalu, residents say there could be long-term risks to ecosystems already in need of protection. Some said they were considering protests and legal action to halt the dump trucks.

At his farm in Olowalu where he grows taro, coconuts and papayas, Eddy Garcia has been analyzing schematics and drone footage of the dump site, and said he believes the site’s overall design is flawed. He is especially critical of the catchment reservoir, which collects rain runoff from the area, fearing that it could overflow, allowing contaminated water to leach into the water table through the area’s porous volcanic rock.

“It’s unacceptable on every single level,” Garcia said.

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.”

Amid the growing concern about the Olowalu site, Ampong was invited by officials to tour the dump area. As he stood there, he said, he could not help but feel the weight of the wrongs that he and other Native Hawaiians have experienced over the past decades, including the desecration of family burial sites during the development of resort complexes in Lahaina.

There also may be historical Hawaiian cultural sites that need protection in the area of the dump, he said. But he is particularly alarmed that he and his family members were not consulted before the temporary site was on the way to becoming a reality.

“My fear is that’s going to continue throughout the course of this recovery and rebuild of Lahaina,” Ampong said. “Folks are already talking about how Lahaina will never be the same.”

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