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Bill 120 gains passage despite passionate testimony against use of Olowalu as a temporary disposition site : Maui Now

Proposed Olowalu fire debris disposal site (Oct. 23, 2023) PC: DLNR Hawaiʻi.

The Maui County Council on Friday voted to pass Bill 120, which authorizes an intergovernmental agreement between the County of Maui and the State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources for right-of-entry for the Olowalu Temporary Disposition Site.

The motion passed with six in favor (Yuki Lei Sugimura, Tamara Paltin, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Tom Cook, Shane Sinenci and Alice Lee), two against (Gabe Johnson and Nohe Uʻu-Hodgins), and one excused (Tasha Kama).

All agreed the decision was a difficult one with one member calling the choice a “lose-lose situation.” Another criticized the administration, saying the council was left out of the site selection process, and now felt pressure to approve or lose funding.

The decision was a difficult one for many, particularly Council member Tamara Paltin, who represents the West Maui Community. “I hate to vote yes, but for the thousands of families that I know, where is the accountability to them? If we believe all these things people say about how toxic this is, about the health concerns to young children and future generations, I’m not willing to put five-year-olds in that position. They don’t have any choice. They don’t have anywhere else to go. If they did, they’d be there already,” she said.

She continued:

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“The state, the hotels are urging people to go back to homes that are still standing adjacent and inside the burn zone. They’re cutting off funding for those families whose houses are still standing and urging them to go back next to the burn zone. My accountability is to the health and safety of the thousands of families, the reef, the ocean which connects us, including Olowalu Reef. And so I hate it, [but] I’ll be voting yes,” said Paltin.

Council member Tamara Paltin (1.12.24) PC: County of Maui / Akakū

“It’s obvious mistakes were made in the consultation with the community and the residents of Olowalu; and the communication of the temporary disposition site. But I think the nine of us can’t put the blame solely on the administration, because the nine of us in responding to this emergency while we were still kind of in shock ourselves, granted the emergency right-of-entry without realizing that we weren’t helping the situation, while we tried to help expedite all things that were labeled ’emergency.’ Perhaps taking a pause at that moment would have prevented us at this moment from having our backs up against the wall,” said Paltin.

“It’s unfortunate the community was not involved in the choices made, and that led to an understandable lack of trust,” said Council member Paltin.

Council Chair Alice Lee said the decision has been difficult for everyone.

“What people don’t realize is in addition to these individual decisions, albeit significant that we have to make, we have limited resources. We have a limited budget. Our budget is a billion dollars. The cost of recovery is estimated at $5 billion. With that billion dollars that we do have, that covers infrastructure, affordable housing, taking care of the homeless, taking care of seniors, taking care of children, taking care of our parks—everything—public health and safety. And now we have Lahaina. So for me, what I try and focus on is the fact that we need to work very closely with our partners, because without them, we would be insolvent,” said Chair Lee.

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She agreed that the arrangement is not a perfect one, and has been a challenge, even for federal partners.

“At the end of the day, however, regardless of all the different points of view, regardless of how we may have contributed to some of the frustration of our people, it wasn’t intentional… We don’t expect the people to know exactly what we have to deal with, but again, working together is the only way we’re going to make it out of this deep hole we’re in,” said Chair Lee.

Council member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez said, “We have to do something immediately, and that’s how we’re protecting the reef right now. You want to protect Molokaʻi’s reef and Lānaʻi’s reef, we have to get all of the toxic debris out of the elements now. As quickly as possible.”

She said she would pursue discussion with partner agencies to further look into the use of containers and other bioremediation techniques, along with efforts to protect cultural areas of concern in Olowalu.

Council members Nohe Uʻu-Hodgins (left) and Gabe Johnson (right).

Council members Nohe Uʻu-Hodgins and Gabe Johnson both said they support the amended motions, but would not be supporting the main motion.

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“I do appreciate everybody’s hard work and I really do appreciate everybody’s help as we try to figure out how Maui is going to navigate forward,” said Uʻu-Hodgins.

“I will say though that this is a lose-lose situation. All day we listened to the public, and rightfully so, they are upset. We have to make what sometimes feels like a really difficult and terrible decision. But I think I can speak for my council members as well as myself where no decision is made on the fly. It is not a flippant decision. It is a very difficult decision that everyone must find their own balance for. I cannot speak to how everybody finds their balance, but this is how I find mine.”

-Council member Nohe U’u Hodgins.

“To say that any one of us doesn’t love this place or love the community is wrong… everyone has to make this decision, and it sucks, for lack of a better word… As a community we have already lost so much… I don’t know if there’s a good decision. I don’t know if there is a better decision,” said Uʻu-Hodgins.

Johnson also voted ‘no’ to the use of the Olowalu site saying, “I don’t have the generational knowledge that some Olowalu families have, but I have experienced Olowalu. I dove that reef. I did lama lama on that reef. We had a roi roundup there one year where we got the invasive roi and it we gave it to the farmers for their compost. That is the mother reef. It feeds Lānaʻi. It feeds Molokaʻi. And the point of Lānaʻi looks at the point of Olowalu, so there’s a connection there. It’s the mother reef. I was raised to protect my mother, and that’s what I want to do,” he said.

“Our backs are against the wall, and I think it’s due a lot because the administration has had time to do things that they could have done and they haven’t included us in this discussion. Now it’s just do this, or we loose all this money. That’s a backs-against-the-wall kind of decision and I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t like being in that situation,” said Council member Johnson.

“Eight sites were considered, and they were considered without us as a council, as a body,” said Johnson. “I cannot stand with ineptitude of a lot of the decision making.”

Council member Tom Cook (1.12.24) PC: County of Maui / Akakū

Council member Tom Cook said he would support the bill, but is not enthusiastic about it. “The fact that Lahaina burned and the entire town is gone… It’s still hard to just even grasp.”

“The comment from the public that this was rushed into and not done thoughtfully is incorrect,” said Cook, noting that the council was not brought in on every aspect of the planning. He also expressed confidence in the work of FEMA and the US Army Corps of Engineers and said he looks to their expertise in moving forward.

Of the Olowalu site, Cook said, “I don’t believe it’s going to just leak right away and we’re going to have a problem right away. I think it’s well built and that’s part of my confidence. People disagree. I have friends in Olowalu, and it’s so painful to vote for this, but I feel that just comes with the territory for being a council member.”

“If we don’t do this, FEMA leaves and everything stops, and it’s not just because they are mean or malicious. If our community is not willing to step up and move forward, they can’t just stay and wait,” said Cook. “By doing this, we can start cleaning up Lahiana; we can take care of our people; we can collaborate and work at a new site; we can get a Class C final spot built.”

Council member Shane Sinenci (1.12.24) PC: County of Maui / Akakū

Council member Shane Sinenci of East Maui said, “The people of Lahaina desperately need our help. They’ve just undergone the worst disaster in our history. We heard from the hub organizers just this week that the people of Lahaina are hurting every day. Now the people of Lahaina are experiencing a second disaster—the poisoning of the ʻāina, and the poisoning of the aquifer as the rains begin to wash all the leachate into the ocean and into the Lahaina aquifer.”

“As we speak, the waters of Mokuʻula, Mokuhinia that have returned since the fires, are now at risk of being tainted the more we wait to clean up Lahaina. This can mean detrimental effects to the drinking water for future generations of Lahaina families,” said Sinenci.

Sinenci said cleaning up Lahaina will give the people hope. “We are relying on the expert advice of the Department of Environmental Management, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers—and they continue to remind us that the more we delay cleanup, the shorter their emergency timeline gets,” said Sinenci.

“As kiaʻi wai, I want to protect the life giving waters of Waineʻe for future generations. Once the Lahaina aquifer is polluted, Lahaina can never be rebuilt,” said Sinenci.

“For West Maui, we’ll be looking at the same kind of experience that Upcountry has,” said Council member Yuki Lei Sugimura, describing the process as “painful, but possible.” She described the next phase as “mitigation, hardening of homes and making sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Mayor Richard Bissen said he is thankful for community members who brought their concerns forward as well as the Council for allowing the time to fully et the situation, which he called “difficult and complex.”

Mayor Bissen said the progress will allow the debris removal process to begin, and called the Council’s vote a critical step in getting survivors back to their parcels and moving recovery efforts forward.

“After careful consideration the Council and I have collectively agreed that Olowalu will not be used as the Permanent Containment Site. As I promised, debris from the Olowalu Temporary Disposition Site will be removed once the permanent site is identified and built.”

Public testimony:

Council member Paltin said the prevailing sentiment of the volume of feedback was to think of the children, future generations, the environment, the reef, wildlife, and the health of Maui’s people.

“You are faced today with a heartbreaking and controversial decision that pits the urgent need to clean up Lahaina and return residents to their properties against the need to protect the reef at Olowalu, a most sensitive and invaluable natural resource,” said Maui resident Robin Knox, who describes herself as an environmental scientist and water quality specialist.

She said she opposes the placement of debris at Olowalu, even on a temporary basis.

“The choice of Olowalu as a temporary disposal site not only raises grave concerns about environmental degradation, but also about environmental justice by placing toxic waste from one community into another where there are indigenous families and cultural resources that may be harmed,” said Knox.

“We should be realistic that it could take five years or more to move all the waste to a final landfill site. The longer the waste is there, the more likely there is, there will be releases of toxic releases of pollutants to groundwater and the ocean,” said Knox.

Testifier Ronni Pfeiffer also spoke out against the use of Olowalu for toxic waste. “FEMA has confirmed they are willing to move the toxic waste from Lahaina off Maui to a more appropriate and safer site. I’ve heard one of the reasons a hasty decision regarding moving the toxic waste to a temporary site has been done is due to deadlines that are coming soon. I ask you, if this is true, who created these deadlines and why can they not be extended to allow thorough time to review all options being presented by the scientific community and experts from around the world.”

“Deadlines can be moved to do the necessary due diligence and come to the best solution for both Maui and the worldwide community,” said Pfeiffer. “Please do not rush into a quick solution that will worsen toxic damage and harm from being done and negatively impacting future generations and wildlife.”

Jennie Kaʻahui spoke as a lineal descendant of Olowalu. She said, “I was raised on this reef. I would know he different coral formations almost better than the back yard here. I also have worked on a project with my children about how Olowalu was a puʻuhonua. It was a multi-generational project that included my father who is over 80 years old and also grew up here.”

Kaʻahuiʻs daughter, who was 11 years old at the time, interviewed her grandfather, asking him what should be preserved. He responded by asking what she would like preserved. “Although we honor what our kupuna say, it’s also up to us to see what our children want to see in the future. So I’m here to say that I do not agree with putting even the temporary site of Olowalu for disposal of the waste from Lahaina.”

“I implore you to consider that Olowalu is something that could be preserved now, instead of something that we’re trying to restore later,” said Kaʻahui. “We absolutely want the healing of Lahaina, of this community to happen as soon as possible. It’s not about the timing. I think that there’s other options—considering putting things in containers, staging it, and making it ready for a final place to put everything.”

Shannon Iʻi, directly affected by the Aug. 8 wildfires, was among those who publicly voiced her support for the temporary use of Olowalu as a disposition site.

“I would rather the toxic debris not be disposed of on any part of our ʻāina here on Maui or anywhere on kō Hawaiʻi pae ʻāina. Unfortunately, the toxic ash and debris have been sitting from Wahikuli to Puamana for far too long, and we canʻt wait any longer. Decisions will not make everyone happy, but one needs to be made, like yesterday. The longer we wait, the more threat it poses to the health of our people and the wealth of our ʻāina,” said I’i.

Source: Maui News

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