Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration is hiring a consultant to help assess whether it’s safe to relocate some 100 homeless people to a vacant lot on Sand Island after reports surfaced in September that the soil could contain high levels of contaminants left over from ash and solid waste dumps.

The consultant is expected to work with state health officials to compile the industrial history of the proposed 5-acre site and develop a plan to sample the soil for contaminants such as lead, according to Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health at the state health department.

Exposure to high levels of lead, a heavy metal associated with incinerator ash, is linked to kidney and brain damage, as well as mental retardation in children, birth defects, miscarriage and infertility, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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

This is the Sand Island site that the city is proposing as a camp for the homeless.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The environmental assessment could delay the city’s plans to renovate the site to accommodate homeless individuals and families. The Caldwell administration had hoped to have the lot ready by the end of this month, paving a portion of it to contain any chemical contamination, and providing portable toilets, showers and lockers for homeless to use. The homeless would be required to bring their own tents.

However, Gill said that sampling alone would likely take longer than a month.

Proposal Was Key to Sit-Lie Ban

In September, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources granted the city access to the site under the condition that state health officials sign off that it’s safe for human habitation.

Civil Beat first reported the site’s potential contamination in September. 

Ember Shinn, the city’s managing director, later said that the mayor would not pursue the site if it was deemed unsafe.

The Caldwell administration did not respond to requests for comment for this report and didn’t answer questions about how much the consultant would cost, whether he or she would be paid out of a fund set aside for creating housing for the homeless or how the study would affect the encampment’s timeline.

The mayor’s office also did not respond to Civil Beat’s request in September for a list of the 25 sites the administration said it had “exhaustively” reviewed before choosing the Sand Island location as a temporary homeless camp.

The Caldwell administration announced plans for the homeless encampment in August after City Council members expressed concerns that the city’s efforts to boot the homeless out of Waikiki, where hotels and other businesses complained they were hurting tourism, were too draconian.

City Council members said that the Caldwell administration needed to provide housing and shelter options first before the council would approve a measure banning sitting and lying on Waikiki sidewalks. Promises of the Sand Island camp helped push the mayor’s bill through the council, but homeless advocates criticized the plan.

History of Site is Murky

The small island south of Honolulu Harbor has a long history of industrial uses. It’s been used for ash and solid waste dumps where cars, tires, refrigerators and other scrap metal were discarded, according to city documents. It was also the site of an automobile staging area, hosted laundry and dry cleaning facilities, paint and repair shops and stored oil and an electrical transformer bank.

The island is the site of Oahu’s main sewage treatment plant, which sits about a quarter of a mile from the proposed homeless camp, as well as city recycling facilities and dozens of other industrial businesses.

However, the exact history of the 5-acre parcel proposed for the Sand Island homeless camp is murky.

“It is not clear to me what happened on what part of Sand Island over the decades,” Gill said by email. “That is why an assessment and sampling is advisable.”

A prior EPA environmental assessment of a former ash dump on Sand Island suggests that the area’s soil could contain high levels of chemicals.

The assessment, which included a larger 86-acre site that wraps around the proposed homeless camp, confirmed the presence of soil contamination “in excess of screening action levels,” according to a synopsis of the EPA report provided by the health department. Chemicals exceeding safety levels included arsenic, lead, antimony, nickel, acetophenone, benzopyrene, dieldrin and methylene chloride.

The area is also suspected of being contaminated with metals, semivolatiles, pesticides and PCBs, according to the report.

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