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By Christie Wilson • Oct. 11, 2023
LAHAINA >> The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to start applying the soil stabilizer Soiltac® to properties burned in the Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfire as soon as next week after an initial delay by Maui County officials in granting approval.
The liquid adhesive agent, which dries clear, is designed to bind and seal toxic ash and dust to keep it from spreading into the environment and prevent runoff into the ocean and streams.
Soiltac was used with county approval in late September at 19 properties in Kula that burned in a separate wildfire Aug. 8 before the parcels were cleared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, Maui Emergency Management Agency interim Administrator Darryl Oliveira told Maui County Council members last week that the county was delaying application of the product in Lahaina until various disaster zones had been cleared of hazardous household materials by the EPA and owners and residents were granted access to their properties before rubble and debris removal.
But at that same Council committee meeting Wednesday, Tara Fitzgerald, deputy incident commander for the EPA’s Maui wildfire response, urged the county to approve Soiltac for use in Lahaina “as soon as possible,” especially with the rainy season looming and since the asbestos, arsenic, lead and microplastics contained in the ash and building ruins pose a serious threat to human health and the environment.
Mayor Richard Bissen on Monday announced he had given the go-ahead, citing its prior use in Kula and the need for urgency. In an accompanying FAQs sheet, the EPA said it confirmed the product is nontoxic following a review of proprietary data from manufacturer Soilworks of Scottsdale, Ariz., and that “applying a soil stabilizer is more protective of public health and the environment than leaving ash and debris as-is. Application of a soil stabilizer helps reduce inhalation risks and the spread of ash to water or surrounding properties.”
“With EPA’s review of the product and its recommendation, along with understanding that if we do nothing we will be placing our people and environment at risk, we will proceed with the application of a soil stabilization product,” Bissen said in a news release.
The mayor did not respond to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser request Tuesday to elaborate on what moved him to expedite the process.
The wildfires caused an estimated $5.5 billion in damage and killed at least 98 people. The Maui Police Department on Tuesday named Lahaina resident Jeanne Eliason, 57, as one of the fatalities.
Eliason was looking forward to welcoming her first grandchild in September, according to a message her daughter, Leila, posted on a verified GoFundMe page seeking support for a celebration of life. “She was the best mom to everyone, her light was so bright and brought such joy everywhere she went,” she said.
MPD said only one of the 98 people whose remains were recovered in Lahaina is left to be identified. Three others whose names have not been released have been identified, but their families had yet to be notified.
Maui County Council member Tamara Paltin of West Maui is among those not satisfied with EPA assurances that Soiltac is the best product for use in the Maui wildfires. She is particularly worried the protective crust that cures after spraying won’t keep thicker, underlying layers of toxic ash and dust from entering the air when disturbed during debris cleanup and removal, potentially spreading particulates to the three public schools in Lahaina preparing to welcome back students next week.
“I’m just not convinced that it’s the best product,” Paltin said Tuesday.
Other concerns include conflicting information about whether Soiltac is biodegradable and subject to breaking down into micro- or nanoplastics that could infiltrate the environment. The EPA says not.
“I’m not trying to dispute the mayor’s decision or second-guess him, because he did consult with me. But based on the information that they were willing to share with me, I couldn’t come to a conclusion,” Paltin said.
Addressing some of the concerns raised about the product, the EPA said the liquid form of Soiltac to be used in Lahaina does not contain microplastics and that the agency “does not anticipate that the shell can break into particles small enough to be considered a microplastics issue.”
The EPA also said property owners will not be able to opt out of its use. “In order to protect the health of residents in and around Lahaina as well as the fragile ocean ecosystem, soil stabilizer will be applied to all properties in Lahaina,” the FAQs sheet said.
“Any potential environmental concerns from the use of a non-toxic soil stabilizer will be vastly outweighed by the benefits of preventing dust and ash from dispersing in the environment.”
Soiltac has been used at multiple EPA cleanup sites and by municipalities for a range of projects including neighborhood parks.
The agency Tuesday told the Star-Advertiser that details for starting the Soiltac application in Lahaina have not been finalized. Bissen said in the news release the effort could begin as soon as next week for properties in the reentry zones, with priority given to those in close proximity to the shoreline.
According to the EPA, the soil stabilizer will be applied only to ash and debris left in the footprint of burned structures and not entire properties. The agency noted that Soiltac is meant as a short-term measure and will be hauled away during debris removal operations.
At last report, the EPA had cleared hazardous household waste from at least two- thirds of 1,500 Lahaina properties in the burned areas. The county since Sept. 25 has allowed reentry into 10 residential disaster zones, and on Tuesday announced it was reopening Zone 6-C (Kahoma Village Loop, Hoe Kawele Drive) and Zone 15-A (Puapihi, Pualima and Front streets and Pualima, Pualoke and Puapake places) beginning Friday.
With the EPA more than halfway through its hazardous waste cleanup, the county is working on legislation that would give affected property owners the choice of opting into the county’s debris removal program, coordinated by the Army Corps of Engineers and supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency at no charge to owners, or coordinating their own debris removal under an alternative program that would require use of contractors specializing in hazardous and toxic material recovery and removal.
The first option requires property owners to provide a right of entry to federal crews, and the second is meant for those who’d rather not but would have to pay for the debris removal out of their own pocket, according to Paltin. In both instances the cleanups would take into account any insurance coverage for debris removal.
Bill 86, prepared by the Bissen administration and the focus of a special Council meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday, establishes standards and procedures for those who choose the alternative program. If approved, the Council and administration would need to define the debris removal process, according to a joint news release from Paltin and Council member Yuki Lei Sugimura of Upcountry Maui.
Sugimura and Paltin are encouraging owners of fire-damaged properties to visit the resource center at the Kalana o Maui building in Wailuku from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, or the Disaster Recovery Center at the Lahaina Civic Center those same days from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., to get more information on Army corps debris removal.
The Maui wildfires also damaged water distribution systems, leading to unsafe- water advisories in certain areas as a precaution until officials can investigate possible infiltration by contaminants such as benzene and other volatile organic chemicals.
On Monday the county Department of Water Supply removed Upper Kula Area UK-4 and Lahaina Area L-2 from its unsafe-water advisory after determining that water serving buildings and homes in those areas was safe for unrestricted use.
Since water in the pipes may have stagnated while the advisory was in effect, DWS recommends customers flush their lines by letting faucets run for at least 10 minutes.
Areas UK-2-B, UK-3 and UK-5 of Upper Kula and Areas L-3-A through L-6 of Lahaina remain under an unsafe-water advisory until further notice, meaning customers in those areas should continue to not drink their tap water. DWS said boiling, filtering, adding chlorine or other disinfectants, or letting water stand will not make the water safe.
To avoid becoming ill, residents under the advisory should use only bottled water or potable water provided by the county for drinking, including for making baby formula and juice, brushing teeth, making ice and for food preparation, according to the water department. Customers in the advisory areas also are advised to limit tap water use for showers and other hygiene needs.
DWS said it continues to work with the state Department of Health and EPA to investigate possible contamination and conduct water quality sampling and testing.
For more information about the unsafe-water advisory, including an interactive Water Advisory Map, visit mauirecovers.org/recovery/utilities.