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Civil Beat – Concerns Grow Over How To Control Toxic Ash As Re-Entry To Lahaina Picks Up (TPD2310027)

Concerns Grow Over How To Control Toxic Ash As Re-Entry To Lahaina Picks Up

The Environmental Protection Agency is awaiting county approval to deploy Soiltac, a dust suppressant with glue-like qualities that the agency says is safe to use.

By Paula Dobbyn

October 6, 2023

Reading time: 6 minutes.

 

As residents return to their destroyed properties in Lahaina and area schools prepare to reopen, many are asking how and when authorities plan to control toxic dust from the Aug. 8 fires from becoming airborne or being washed into the sea and freshwater systems.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s answer to that question is a dust-suppressant product called Soiltac, which arose as a major topic of concern this week at a Maui County Council committee meeting.

With county approval, the agency already used it in Kula where the fires destroyed 19 homes. The EPA also wants to use it in Lahaina, where more than 2,200 structures were destroyed in the fires and some of the displaced residents have started to return to what’s left of their properties under the county’s phased-reentry program.

The EPA has asked for permission to apply a dust-suppresant to control the toxic ash in Lahaina, as it did in Kula already, but the county has decided to allow the reentry process for residents to happen first. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

 

Soiltac would be sprayed on the fire residue as a temporary sealant to prevent contaminated ash from being released into the air, leaching into groundwater, or entering the ocean, plumbing or freshwater streams.

Ash from an urban fire can contain asbestos, lead, arsenic and other cancer-causing chemicals and heavy metals, health officials have warned.

The concern isn’t just for residents returning to their properties, but also for those whose homes did not burn down who are living in the area still and for students who are set to resume class at three area schools later this month.

Tara Fitzgerald, EPA deputy incident commander for Maui fires, said at Wednesday’s meeting that her agency has submitted a request to Maui Mayor Richard Bissen’s administration to deploy Soiltac on burned properties in Lahaina to control the ash.

She said if EPA receives approval, “we’d go as soon as possible.”

It’s up to the mayor to act on that request, according to EPA spokesperson Rusty Harris- Bishop.

Bissen approved its use in Kula, and he received the support of Upcountry County Councilwoman Yuki Lei Sugimura, Harris-Bishop said by email.

But Darryl Oliveira, interim head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, said the county’s approach is to wait until returning families and individuals visit their properties before moving to the next phase, which would be applying a dust suppressant.

Displaced Lahaina residents of Malo Street, Kalani Road, Kekai Road, Ainakea Road and Lamanai Street can return Friday and Saturday with vehicle passes. On Monday and Tuesday, residents of three zones to the south — along Wahikuli Road, Ainakea Road and Fleming Road — can reenter, part of an ongoing process as officials clean up the burn zone of hazardous materials. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

Some members of the council’s Disaster, Resilience, International Affairs and Planning Committee, chaired by West Maui Councilwoman Tamara Paltin, said they’ve been hearing from constituents who are worried about any potentially harmful effects of Soiltac on the marine environment and groundwater.

“There’s been a lot of questions and fear,” said Councilwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez.

She urged the county and the EPA to get on the same page and for all agencies handling the recovery to do a better job of communicating with each other and the public.

Oliveira said he will “work to improve our communication.”

EPA says Soiltac is safe, as does the chief executive of the Arizona company that manufactures it.

“It is non-toxic, biodegradable, and approved by the State of Hawaii and Maui County,” the agency said in an August news release.

“EPA is applying this adhesive as part of a multi-pronged effort with the U.S. Coast Guard, Maui County and the State of Hawaiʻi to prevent ash runoff into the environment,” the release said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Chad Falkenberg, CEO of Soilworks, reiterated the safety of his product and he criticized those who are spreading fear about it.

“The spread of misinformation and reliance on conspiracy theories by individuals, some of whom hold influential platforms, is not only disheartening but dangerous,” he said.

Wildfires on Aug. 8 in Upcountry Maui destroyed 19 homes, including these in Kula. The EPA has already applied Soiltac to control the spread of potentially toxic ash in areas Upcountry, with county approval. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Aside from EPA, Falkenberg said he’s heard from a total of three individuals — a musician, a journalist and a concerned citizen — who have contacted him to discuss

Soiltac even though his contact information is readily available.

Ecotoxicologist Craig Downs testified at Wednesday’s meeting, raising safety questions about what’s in Soiltac and how it might break down into microplastics that could easily enter the environment. Soiltac is basically made of plastic, he said, and there are alternatives that are more environmentally friendly, such as ones that are mineral-based and use pine resin as their main binding agent.

Rebekah Uccellini, of Grow the Change, said whatever method of controlling the ash is used, it should be applied sooner rather than later. Ideally it should have happened shortly after the fire was out.

Uccellini, who has worked in fire relief in California and Oregon, said she is working with families already living near the Lahaina burn zone who are experiencing respiratory issues and headaches.

“We keep giving them air purifiers but I know that it’s not enough. Ideally, we would not have people living there until the cleanup is complete,” she said.

Darryl Oliveira is interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency. He says the reentry program for Lahaina residents will be completed before the EPA applies Soiltac to control the potentially toxic ash. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Meanwhile, the reentry process is speeding up, with residents in additional zones in northern Lahaina allowed to visit their properties with valid county-issued vehicle passes. The county’s phased approach started on Sept. 25.

Parts of West Maui will be reopened to tourists starting on Sunday, although Lahaina will remain off-limits for now.

And schoolchildren are due to return to Lahaina classrooms later this month.

Lahainaluna High School will be the first to reopen on Oct. 16, followed by Lahaina Intermediate on Oct. 17 and Princess Nahi’ena’ena Elementary on Oct. 18.

King Kamehameha III Elementary was completely destroyed by the fire. Its students will attend Princess Nahi’ena’ena while a temporary campus is built at Pulelehua, a planned mixed-use development located between Kaanapali and Napili.

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