A dusty plot of land in the heavily industrial area of Sand Island that the city is proposing as a homeless encampment could have hazardous levels of contaminants such as arsenic and lead left over from solid waste and ash dumps that were operated nearby for decades, according to Hawaii Department of Health records.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration has announced it is seeking to relocate about 100 of the most chronically homeless to the site as the city works to develop housing options.

This subset of the homeless population, which includes families, is often characterized as the most vulnerable, suffering from mental illness and drug and alcohol dependency.

Sand Island site where City and County of Honolulu is proposing Housing First Transition Center. September 9, 2104.

The Sand Island site where the City of Honolulu is proposing a Housing First Transition Center.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The proposal is sparking protests from homeless advocates worried that the area is toxic from years of industrial use. The site is about a quarter-mile from the island’s wastewater treatment plant — which processes the island’s sewage — and across from a Matson container yard.

State health officials say that a thorough review of the soil may be needed to make sure that it doesn’t contain dangerous levels of contaminants, which have shown up in the area’s vicinity in past sampling

Solid Waste, Ash Dump Was Nearby

The proposed parcel abuts a much larger site that was used to dump solid waste and ash from 1934 to 1999, according to Department of Health records.

Ash waste includes the incomplete combustion of trash, such as lead acid batteries and metal, according to Steven Chang, head of the state health department’s solid and hazardous waste branch.

An environmental assessment of 86 acres in the area, which included the proposed site for the homeless camp, conducted in recent years, found a host of contaminants in the area that exceeded federal safety standards, according to a Honolulu Board of Water Supply review provided by the state health department.

This included arsenic, which is linked to cancer, and lead, which is associated with development problems in children and reduced growth rates in the fetuses of pregnant women, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Other contaminants found in the area include dieldrin, linked to cancer and birth defects, as well as antimony, nickel, acetophenone, benzopyrene and methyl chloride. Other suspected contaminants include metals, semi-volatiles, pesticides and PCB’s, according to the report.

“The likely risk out there would be from inadvertent ingestion of soil, especially by children.” — Fenix Grange, state health department

Chang said precautions should be taken in the area.

“You shouldn’t let people dig six-foot holes in the ground because they will probably find ash,” he said. “The history of Sand Island is it’s been a dump site for the whole time that I’ve known it.”

Fenix Grange, a supervisor at the state health department’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office, said a quick review of the environmental assessment indicates that three samples were taken at the proposed plot for the homeless camp, none of which showed dangerous levels of contaminants. But she cautioned that the sample was limited and a more comprehensive assessment of the area would likely be needed to assess potential risks.

Of particular concern is direct contact with the soil. Homeless people are expected to bring their own tents, but others might end up sleeping directly on the ground.

“The likely risk out there would be from inadvertent ingestion of soil, especially by children,” said Grange. “So if families are living in tents with soil at elevated levels of action, that could be a concern.”

Caldwell’s office did not respond to requests to comment on the history of contamination in the area or questions as to whether the city had screened the site to make sure it was safe.

A spokesman for the mayor would only say that “We will do our due diligence on the site.”

In 2005, the state Department of Transportation was considering placing a maritime container yard on the parcel and sought a determination from the health department as to whether the site contained dangerous contaminants.

The health department determined that the site was fine for containers, but its health risks should be further evaluated if there would be greater human exposure.

“Additional health risk concerns that should be evaluated if property use changes include exposure of the general public and the intrusion of subsurface vapors into future buildings,” according to a letter from Keith Kawaoka, an environment manager in the health department’s HEER office, to the state transportation department. “Reported levels of some contaminants in soil also suggested potential groundwater and surface water quality concerns if significant leaching occurs.”

‘Slow Down and Think This Through’

In addition to potential contamination from the dump sites, Sand Island also has a history of petroleum contamination, health department records show. However, it’s not clear if the contamination extends to the proposed parcel for the homeless.

Kathryn Xian, executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, who has been advocating on behalf of the homeless, said in an email that the site raises “serious concerns about soil toxicity, not to mention the psychological effect of placing the extreme poor at a former dump site.”

She also expressed concerns about the area’s isolation and heat.

“It’s a danger to anyone who would reside in that area,” she told Civil Beat, noting that the area lacks shade and people could suffer from heat stroke.

“The whole project is being fast-tracked and it really is critical that we slow down and think this through,” Xian said.

City officials will hold a public meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Puuhale Elementary School to provide information and answer questions about their proposed homeless plan at Sand Island.

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