A community briefing that was intended as little more than a perfunctory presentation about a stream dredging project in Manoa turned into a full-fledged debate Tuesday, as former Gov. Neil Abercrombie and an environmental history professor led a chorus of critics questioning the state’s plan to store toxic stream sludge next to University of Hawaii faculty apartments.
In the end, after a spirited, hour-long outdoor meeting that started at the Woodlawn Bridge over Manoa Stream and wandered up to the faculty apartment complex, Department of Land and Natural Resources officials threw in the towel. At least for now.
DLNR director Suzanne Case agreed to postpone the dredging project, which was set to start this week, to allow more time to confer with residents.
“I’m kind of amazed, and incredibly grateful that everyone turned out,” said Kieko Matteson, an associate professor of environmental history at the University of Hawaii, who helped organize several dozen faculty housing residents, local residents and members of the media to attend the meeting. “I’m incredibly relieved that the project is temporarily put on hold.”
Tuesday’s presentation started off innocently enough, with Case and DLNR’s chief engineer, Carty Chang, outlining the dredging project. Manoa Stream is especially prone to flooding near the bridge, Chang said, because water rises as it funnels from the wider stream bed through the bridge’s abutments.
Compounding the problem, Chang said, the water tends to deposit sediment near and under the bridge, which makes the stream bed rise.
The idea, Chang said, is to create a concrete structure to form a “mini waterfall” that would flush water swiftly under the bridge and to dredge the riverbed for some 400 feet below the bridge to keep water moving swiftly, so it wouldn’t deposit sediments.
The main controversy involves what to do with the sludge dredged from the stream bed, which contained toxic pesticides used to kill termites for decades before the chemicals were banned. DNLR’s plan includes storing the sludge in two massive, swimming pool-sized basins in a yard of the faculty apartment complex.
Talk of storing toxic sludge next to the houses of dozens of families, many with young children, led to flurries of questions. While Case asked people to let Chang finish his presentation before asking questions, her request was largely ignored and derided.
“This is not a meeting to resolve anything, as such,” Abercrombie said.
Matteson echoed the sentiment, saying residents wanted the chance to talk about the dredging. “We don’t want to just be told what the project is,” she said.
Abercrombie, who lives in Manoa, was especially critical of what residents said was a lack of notice about the project until it was about to start.
“It never occurred to UH or anyone else – ‘Maybe we should let the people who are affected know about it?’” he asked.
At one point, while Chang was showing a diagram of the area, including the DLNR-owned property where the sludge would be stored, Matteson essentially took over and gave a short lecture describing where the sludge pits would be located in relation to faculty apartments.
When asked whether an environmental assessment had been done according to Hawaii’s statute, Chapter 343, DLNR officials said both the dredging and storage plans were exempt from the law.
“That’s bullshit,” Abercrombie later said. “No way do you extend 343 exemptions to that. No way.”
Residents also questioned plans to cut down trees where federally endangered Hawaiian hoary bats are known to nest. Julien Gorbach, a communications professor, noted that cutting down the trees would mean fewer bats, which are known to eat mosquitoes. Meanwhile, he said, sludge could attract more mosquitoes.
When Chang explained that the sludge pits wouldn’t contain standing water but a “slurry,” Gorbach shot back, “You don’t think mosquitoes will like that?”
Michelle Bisbee, a scenic design professor, said she had no problem with the dredging itself.
“It can keep going,” she said. “But can we find another location for these (sludge) pools.”
Andrea Freeman, who teaches Constitutional law at UH, noted that the dredging is also upstream of UH’s Center for Hawaiian Studies, which includes a traditional loi, or taro patch, that relies on water from the stream. Freeman said she heard about the plan because she lives at faculty housing but questioned whether the center had been notified.
The meeting attracted an unusually high-powered and learned crowd for a neighborhood stream tour. Also on hand was Sen. Brian Taniguchi, who represents Manoa, and William Aila Jr., a prominent native Hawaiian and environmental activist who served as Abercrombie’s DLNR director.
Case and Chang had planned to walk down the stream bank to discuss the tree cutting and dredging, but before they could get started, Matteson led attendees to the faculty housing site where the sludge was to be stored. Before long, Case was there, too, announcing that that the project would be delayed so DLNR could confer more with the residents.
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