HILO — Hawaii Island’s planners and first responders are used to coping with a huge range of potential disasters, from lava flows and tsunamis to wildfires to torrential rains.
If only their potential troubles stopped there.
Less well known, and perhaps less thoroughly planned for, are man-made hazards.
The island’s first responders must be equipped to deal with incidents at what the federal Environmental Protection Agency calls “Tier II” facilities” that hold large enough inventories of hazardous materials that they must report those inventories to public agencies and file their own emergency plans.
Scattered across the island, as well, are scores of older sites that still hold hazards ranging from plantation-era herbicides to unexploded munitions. Firefighters, police and Civil Defense officials must be prepared to deal with all of them.
But first responders are coping with outdated or nonexistent equipment, and officials must rely on the companies they’re regulating to report toxic inventories. And while the companies may have detailed plans for evacuating their own employees, it’s up to public officials to quickly devise plans get neighboring residents out of harm’s way.
“Our HAZMAT team is really in short supply of money for equipment,” said fire official Gerald Kosaki. “We need proper equipment to help identify the chemicals and find out if the atmosphere is safe.”
Kosaki is battalion chief in charge of special operations for the Hawaii County Fire Department. His unit handles hazardous materials responses and ocean rescues. He also chairs the county’s Local Emergency Response Planning Committee, an interagency task force charged with preparing for disasters such as a major petroleum fire or chemical spill.
The Fire Department has ordered new HAZMAT suits to replace its current aging models, but the new suits haven’t arrived. Kosaki said the department also needs to replace its outdated HazmatID detectors, which analyzes unknown chemicals.
And it does not have, but badly needs, RAMAN detectors, a laser-based technology that can analyze substances inside a sealed container. A RAMAN unit is vital to help first responders safely handle substances such as the narcotic Fentanyl, which, Kosaki said, is “so highly potent that you can get high just from skin contact.”
The department needs the equipment on each side of the island. The detectors would cost about $204,000, Kosaki said.
His team must be ready to quickly respond to all sorts of hazards, from chlorine spills (one happened a couple of years ago next to a shopping center in Hilo) to a firefighter’s worst nightmare: a major fire at a Tier II facility, where responders may have to simultaneously fight the fire and evacuate a neighborhood. For that job, they may need the aid of Civil Defense, which would open its Emergency Operations Center to handle the catastrophe.
The center is usually used for natural disasters such as tsunamis. But while tsunami evacuation routes are long planned, a man-made disaster may require improvisation.
Tsunami evacuation drills happen biennially — one full-scale drill happened just last year, according to Civil Defense head Talmadge Magno. But has there ever been a drill for, say, a petroleum tank farm fire around the Port of Hilo?
“Not to my knowledge,” he said.
County fire trucks, Magno said, “run with guidebooks” that give the range of evacuation for specific chemicals. Each Tier II site, he said, “has their Material Safety Data Sheet that gives you their specifics” about hazardous substances on site. Assuming that the HAZMAT team could get to whoever had custody of the data sheet, it would then have the information to know how broad an evacuation perimeter to establish.
But who would be in charge of ordering the evacuation?
Magno was less clear about that: “It may be determined in the field, or the decision may be made here” (at the Emergency Operations Center). But it will be done.”
A petroleum tank fire, or any other major disaster around the Port of Hilo, would have special ramifications for the community of Keaukaha because its only paved exit road would be cut off. Residents would have to evacuate across the Hilo International Airport runways.
Magno noted that residents might have to wait for incoming flights to land or be diverted before the two gates leading out onto the airfield could be opened. He said alternate routes around the airport were being planned.
Tier II sites aren’t the only hazardous ones. Some businesses have smaller stocks of chemicals that don’t meet EPA’s Tier II threshold but are equally lethal. And some just don’t bother to report.
“We don’t have any policing or any way to find out” if companies are reporting hazardous inventories, said Kosaki, though state officials inspect the facilities they know about.
And then there are legacy sites, where polluters used to be and their messes remain. The Hawaii Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response office is tracking at least 150 such “sites of interest” on the Big Island. Many date back to the plantation era. About 100 are still marked “Hazard Unknown,” and many more still don’t have management plans in place.
The public is often unaware that these toxic neighbors exist.
Such sites exist in every district of the island, from the top of Mauna Kea (where the Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory had to mitigate hydraulic and diesel fuel spills), to the Ookala Gym and Ball Park.
At least 23 former and current military sites, including bombing and target ranges, are scattered around the island; on some, unexploded ordinance has been found; many have still been marked “hazard unknown,” and nearly all still require assessments and/or responses.
Civil Defense also has a list of such sites, embedded in its most recent Multihazard Mitigation Plan, written in 2015. But that list contains far fewer sites than the DOH list — it has none of the military sites, for instance — and information for some of the sites that it does include was out of date even in 2015.
When John Peard, who runs HEER’s solo Hilo office, checked the list, for instance, he found sites such as the Hilo Bayfront Soccer Field listed as “Hazard Unknown.” But in fact, Peard said, petroleum-contaminated soil had been identified and hauled away from that field in 2004-2005.
At some locations, hazards must be mitigated onsite. Keaau Middle School, for instance, had to close its school garden when arsenic — commonly used as an herbicide on cane plantations before World War II — was found there. The problem was “managed” by placing some highly contaminated parts of the school grounds off limits and covering others with soil. When the school begins planned upgrades by demolishing some older buildings in the near future, it will have to keep careful records and haul any exposed contaminated soil to the West Hawaii landfill.
Arsenic is so common on the island that Peard suggests that anyone who owns former cane land should test for it. Cane soils also often contain small amounts of dioxin from later herbicides.
The health department continues to survey and clear hazardous sites as money becomes available, but the problem isn’t going to be solved anytime soon. Meanwhile, neighbors who want to know about hazardous sites near them can consult the HEER database by going to its public records site and clicking on the link marked “HEER Sites of Interest Lookup Spreadsheet.”
Thoughts on this or any other story? We’re replacing comments with a new letters column. Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes.