PUHI, Kauai — Near Anini Beach Park is a spot locals and surfers call “Wires,” where the road curves to follow the bay and tourist rental cars glide past.
The indescribable natural beauty is marred by a badly trashed Toyota Echo, its windows broken out, stripped of parts and abandoned by the roadside less than 50 feet from the ocean.
A few miles back down Kuhio Highway, at Kealia Beach, visitors and locals dot the sand. Less than 150 feet from the surfline, though, a battered long-wheelbase Ford van — hood open, engine stripped, interior missing — rots under a tree.
And in the underbrush near Anahola Beach Park, at a spot called “Unreals,” hundreds of rotting vehicle hulks mar the landscape right on the water. Some of them are in piles 10 to 20 feet high — on property supposedly held in trust by the Hawaii Department of Hawaiian Homelands.
DHHL does not quarrel with the assertion that the choking mass of abandoned cars and trucks defiles the land the agency is supposed to protect and that the problem is substantial and largely unaddressed.
Eventually, many of the vehicles will end up in Puhi, where a company called Resource Recovery Solutions will crush them and load them on barges to be sold for scrap.
Abandoned and derelict vehicles are a rising dirty tide washing over Kauai. It’s reminiscent of 1999, when the Los Angeles Times published a story headlined, “Kauai’s Junked Cars Slowly Turn ‘Garden Isle” into ‘Garbage Isle.’”
At the time, there was a plausible explanation. Hurricane Iniki five years before had so badly trashed the island that destroyed vehicles were still being discovered. Today’s situation comes with no such excuse.
And it’s getting worse. The problem has become so severe that, in 2016, Kauai County transferred authority over abandoned cars from the Public Works Department to the Kauai Police Department. KPD hired a full-time abandoned vehicle coordinator and is considering adding a second position.
KPD said it removed 1,191 abandoned vehicles in 2017 from county and state highway rights-of-way, parks and other public property. The county is powerless to take action against derelicts on private property, so there are many locations where rotting cars and trucks exist just a few feet farther off the highway than would allow them to be towed.
Through September, 960 vehicles have been removed — a pace that would yield nearly 1,300 for the year. Unlike the county, DHHL has no clear idea of how many derelict vehicles are on its land. “There currently isn’t a statewide policy to address these types of issues,” DHHL said in response to questions from Civil Beat.
“In Anahola,” the DHHL said, “we are looking into working with homestead organizations and/or beneficiaries to manage the areas where a majority of the dumping is occurring.”
The department added that blame for the glut of car hulks does not fall exclusively on Native Hawaiians. “A large number of vehicles are being stripped and disposed off on the homestead by nonresidents,” DHHL said.
Anahola Native Hawaiian leaders, however, take issue with the agency’s responses.
“The solutions they need are right in front of them — in us, in Native Hawaiians,” said Robin Danner, who heads the Homestead Housing Authority. “The DHHL responses are, sadly, quite typical — analysis paralysis.”
Her organization has proposed that DHHL support a local campaign to clear the rusting hulks and educate people.
Allen Evans, co-owner of Resource Recovery Solutions, said his company has operations throughout the state — particularly on Molokai and Maui. He said one reason for an increase in abandoned cars is the cost of living and the difficulty businesses have finding enough workers. Kauai, Evans said, is hardly unique.
People who come in search of work often buy an old beater car, Evans said. In a fluid, gig economy, in which jobs are often many miles from where low-wage workers can afford to live, the beaters end up as vehicular jetsam. Their owners don’t earn enough to even tow them to the junkyard in Puhi, so they treat them like any other disposable.
KPD Capt. Mark Ozaki agreed that the problem is growing.
“It seems like we’re tackling a problem that has been neglected for a decade,” Ozaki said.
If people are caught in the act of abandoning a car, they are subject to arrest for criminal littering, but Ozaki said he has never heard of such an arrest.
Police officers, he said, hate devoting time to abandoned vehicles when there are so many higher priorities, Ozaki said. But this crime may lead to others. It is very much, he said, like the theory behind so-called “broken windows” policing — a deteriorating visual environment prompts more property and violent crime and more general social breakdown.
Citizens can play a key role by taking photographs of people seen in the process of abandoning a vehicle turning them over to police. Those photos, he said, could help make prosecutable cases.
“KPD is pretty tired of having to deal with this,” he said. “I’d like to see our taxpayers’ money spent in other ways.”
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