Storing Wildfire Debris at Olowalu Stirs Controversy

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Maui County’s decision to use Olowalu as the temporary location for storing debris from the Lahaina wildfires sparked vocal criticism from those with ties to the area. As a result, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen has since decided against using Olowalu permanently. While his decision brought relief, concerns remain.

Olowalu is an important wahi pana. Hinano Rodrigues shared that articles in early Hawaiian language newspapers suggest that Olowalu and Ukumehame (a land division within Olowalu) were residences of choice for aliʻi visiting or living on Maui. According to ‘ohana stories, it also the residence of choice for Kihawahine (a goddess who took the form of a lizard).

Rodrigues is a lineal descendant of Olowalu and Ukumehame, and his family remains there today. He said his family opposed Awalua (an area within Olowalu) as the “permanent toxic waste dump” for cultural and environmental reasons. Rodrigues’ great-grandmother was born in Awalua around 1875 and his mother was born in Olowalu in 1929.

Although Rodrigues would prefer the county not use Awalua at all, he credited Bissen and the county council for listening to their concerns. For now, he is “standing back” on fighting the county over the temporary site.

However, Eddy Garcia, a regenerative farmer in Olowalu, said he is still raising concerns about the site’s mismanagement and a lack of proper environmental safeguards. Garcia is using his team’s drone footage to monitor the site and posting reports to his Instagram account (@livingearthsystems), which has more than 27,000 followers. “We would like to see the site cease and desist its operations immediately and put an emergency plan in place to contain it before the next big rain,” Garcia said.

His concerns include the lack of protocol to handle overflow in the event of heavy rainfall and the lack of hazardous material testing. “Contractors not following protocol,” Garcia said. “Because of them cutting corners, the environment is going to suffer majorly.” He said he received no formal response to the complaints he filed with the Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the county.

Garcia took his concerns to the State Inspector General’s office and has assembled a team of scientists to share their findings with the county in March.

According to Col. Jess Curry, Hawai‘i Wildfires Recovery Field Office commander with the Army Corps, the temporary debris storage (TDS) site, was “over-designed for typical facilities” and is located at the location of a gravel mining pit and now-closed Olowalu dumpsite.

“The TDS site was designed and constructed to accommodate rain events and to prevent toxins associated with fire debris from entering groundwater or the ocean,” said Curry. Regarding testing for hazardous materials, he said, “ash and debris from residential areas in Kula, Olinda, and Lahaina are not regulated as hazardous wastes according to U.S. EPA regulations, and therefore do not require testing.”

Curry said the same classification and procedures were used following other serious wildfire events, such as in Paradise, Calif., where it was also necessary to prioritize the removal of ash from residential properties to reduce impacts to human health and the environment.

“FEMA and the county have named their own advisory groups, and that is good and within their prerogative. But if both agencies are going into another’s ahupuaʻa, especially [to store] toxic waste, they should do so with respect, consideration, sensitivity, and most of all, permission from both the Native Hawaiian families and the rest of the community, even if they are not Native Hawaiian,” said Rodrigues.

“The Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), as well as the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR), were both remiss in conducting proper legal and cultural protocol (as defined in the Hawai’i Constitution and applicable court decisions), by neglecting to consult with the Native Hawaiians of Olowalu.”

Bissen announced his decision to move forward with Olowalu as a temporary (but not permanent) site on Jan. 4 at the Maui County Council’s Disaster Resilience, International Affairs & Planning Committee meeting.

“We will continue to review other potential sites for long-term storage and containment. However, with survivors’ best interest in mind, halting the progress of the project for the temporary site is not an option,” said Bissen. “You have my promise that the Olowalu site will not be used as a permanent site and that the debris will be removed from this temporary site once the permanent site is identified and built.”

Though Rodrigues expressed disappointment that families were not contacted, he credited Bissen for deciding to take Olowalu off the permanent site list. “I truly believe that his sensitivity to the culture, and what he heard from the community, played a pivotal role – albeit somewhat after the fact. But I mahalo the mayor for that.”

The county is supposed to make a final site selection for a permanent site on March 1, 2024. Wahikuli and Crater Village in Lahaina, and the Central Maui Landfill in Puʻunēnē, are the three sites undergoing evaluation for permanent debris storage. The county did not provide a specific timeline for removal of the debris to a permanent site.

According to a statement from the county’s communications office, “The timing of debris being transferred to the permanent site depends on factors including how quickly property can be acquired and how quickly the permanent site can be built. That will depend on which location is selected as the Permanent Disposal Site. The mayor will select the permanent site, based on input from the community survey.”

 

Author’s note: On Feb. 29, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen announced that the Central Maui Landfill has been selected as the location of the permanent disposal site (PDS) for ash and debris from the August wildfires.