Soil tests on an empty plot of land on Sand Island where Mayor Kirk Caldwell has proposed relocating up to 100 homeless people indicate that the area is safe for human habitation, according to Fenix Grange, a supervisor in the Hawaii Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office.

The department tested the soil for lead, arsenic, dioxins, petroleum products and other contaminants after past reports in the vicinity of the proposed site found elevated levels of chemicals.

The new samples showed trace levels of a number of contaminants, including lead and arsenic, but they were well below the most conservative threshold that would spark health concerns, said Grange.

“At this point, given the data that we have now, it certainly looks like the surface soils are clean and safe for residential use,” she said.

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 has proposed a Housing First Transition Center.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The results may reinvigorate Caldwell’s plan for a tent facility that would include restrooms, shuttle service to town, storage areas and security. The mayor announced plans for the homeless facility in August and had planned to have it operational by the end of last year.

The administration began having second thoughts about the site after health officials raised concerns about potential contamination. The city was facing as much as $25,000 in costs to test the soil. This was later covered by federal funds allocated to the Health Department by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Health officials had also suggested that the site might need to be covered with asphalt or crushed coral to contain any contamination, which could have cost the city up to $40,000.

The city would not need to cover the soil, said Grange.

Jesse Broder Van Dyke, a spokesman for the mayor, did not respond to questions about how the Caldwell administration plans to proceed with plans for the homeless site in light of the results of the new soil testing.

‘We Just Wanted to Be Sure’

Health officials had been particularly worried about the potential presence of lead in the soil, which is associated with development problems in children.

A study conducted more than a decade ago when state officials were exploring a golf course in the area found not only elevated levels of lead, but potentially dangerous levels of contaminants, including arsenic and dieldrins, which can cause cancer, as well as pesticides and PCBs.

That study was conducted over a much larger area.

“Because of the history of the site and other detections farther away, we just wanted to be sure,” said Grange. “We also wanted to use more modern sampling.”

This latest sampling concentrated on about 21,000 square feet of land where the homeless could be be sleeping and nearby areas where children could be playing.

Much of Sand Island is heavily industrialized, hosting the city’s recycling operations and dozens of businesses. The proposed homeless camp sits about a quarter-mile from the island’s wastewater treatment plant.

In past decades, the small island just off the south shore of Oahu hosted solid waste and ash dumps. During World War II it was used as an internment camp for Japanese.

The proposed homeless camp has been controversial among homeless advocates.

City officials have said that they aimed to keep the site open for no more than two years as they worked to place homeless people in more permanent housing. There are roughly 1,500 homeless people currently living on the streets, according to city estimates.

UPDATE: After this story was published, the mayor’s office indicated in a statement to Civil Beat that city officials will continue to consider Sand Island as a potential homeless site based on the soil sample results.

“However, while waiting for the soils testing results, the City was able to start placing individuals and family units into the Housing First program, and we are now up to housing 37 households, including 43 individuals,” Deputy Managing Director Georgette Deemer said in the statement. “As such, the City will reevaluate the project, talk with stakeholders and elected officials of the surrounding districts, and determine whether it still makes sense to go to Sand Island, and if so, what is the best use of the site.”


About the Author