For years, routine boat maintenance at the Kaneohe Yacht Club may have leached pollutants into Kaneohe Bay, endangering its unique coral reefs. That finally stopped in 2018, after the Department of Health issued a citation requiring the club to take steps to reduce the environmental impact of its maintenance activities.

Now, the state is ready to grant the Kaneohe Yacht Club a permit that would allow the boaters to resume working on their boats, hoping that the permit’s requirements would sufficiently curtail the pollutants’ spread.

But some neighbors and at least one scientist say the permit’s limited jurisdiction and lack of supervision makes them worried that the yacht club would continue to release chemicals via dust and water runoff, posing a health risk to the surrounding community and further damaging the ecosystem of the bay.

Public comment is being accepted on the permit until Monday.

Kaneohe Bay Kaneohe Windward Oahu aerial.

The Department of Health wants to issue the Kaneohe Yacht Club a permit that would allow it to resume maintenance on its boats, leaving some residents worried over pollution concerns.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Robert Richmond, a research professor and director of the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory, said one activity in particular — the yearly task of sanding and repainting the bottom of boats with anti-fouling paint — releases pollutants that could have a catastrophic effect on the bay’s coral if not properly contained.

Richmond said that anti-fouling paint contains significant amounts of heavy metals such as copper — which is toxic to almost all marine organisms — and that sailors coat the hulls of their boats with this paint to deter barnacles and algae from sticking to their boats.

Copper also prevents coral larvae — essentially baby coral — from attaching to the reef and becoming a polyp, the precursor to the mature coral that make up a coral reef.

“Copper is the main ingredient in anti-fouling paint because it’s very toxic to marine life, and it will prevent larvae from settling,” Richmond said, “but it will also inhibit the ability of things like corals and other animals to reproduce.”

But some are concerned about potential risk to humans when dust from the maintenance becomes airborne and carries potentially toxic substances on the wind.

Howard Green, a lawyer and former Kaneohe Yacht Club member who owns property adjacent to the yacht club, said that he first grew concerned when he moved to his house in 2011 and discovered that the sanding of paint produced dust clouds. The Kaneohe Yacht Club lacked appropriate infrastructure to contain pollutants that can be found in larger facilities, he said.

Green said the yacht club rejected his initial request to cease all maintenance activities, so he commissioned Whale Environmental Services to perform a private environmental study to analyze the pollutants that made their way to his property.

What he found surprised him.

“Once the environmental experts began talking to me about it, I realized it was not only bad, but it was a whole lot worse than I thought it was,” Green said.

“The second environmental guy that I hired, testified … that, in his opinion, it would not be prudent for anybody to actually live in my house.”

Green said the study analyzed samples of soil and stormwater runoff collected from various locations surrounding the yacht club, and that many of the samples contained concentrations of heavy metals such as copper, lead and zinc that far exceeded the health department’s thresholds used to determine whether a chemical poses risk to humans.

Green submitted this data to the state health department and continued to file complaints with the yacht club, which he said ultimately got him kicked out of the club in 2018 despite having been a member for 49 years.

Officials with the Kaneohe Yacht Club did not respond to requests for comment.

Is The Permit Enough?

To address these concerns, the health department is requiring the club to adopt practices to ensure that potentially dangerous pollutants do not reach state waters before issuing a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. The permit would allow the yacht club to legally release industrial water runoff into the bay.

Matthew Kurano, supervisor of the department’s Clean Water Branch enforcement section, called the requirements “common sense protocols” that include refraining from performing maintenance in the rain or making sure that paint and other chemicals are not left exposed to the elements.

Other practices may be more substantial, such as the upkeep of a sediment retention basin large enough to accommodate the yacht club’s storm water runoff, according to the publicly available permit.

Kurano said that the NPDES permit only covers pollution that occurs through water runoff and would not cover airborne dust, which falls under air pollution laws.

Kurano said that while the Kaneohe Yacht Club would be added to the regular inspection rotation to ensure the yacht club’s compliance with permit requirements, he acknowledged that the health department was “often not nearly as involved as people would like,” given that the Clean Water Branch is responsible for monitoring around 1,200 permits throughout the year.

Ultimately, Kurano said that the yacht club itself would be responsible for enforcing the permit, making sure that its members follow all the requirements including filing regular reports to the health department.

“Really, it is the permitee’s responsibility to comply. At the end of the day, it’s like paying your taxes, right?” Kurano said. “And you don’t want them to cheat, but it’s up to the permittee or the taxpayer to comply.”

But Green said it would be impossible to ensure that every boater followed the required practices because maintenance is not supervised.

“They have a copy of the best management practices posted at the office … and yet, the best management practices are pretty much ignored by every member of the club who cleans his boat over there,” Green said.

The department is accepting public comments on the permit until Monday. Interested residents can email their comments to cleanwaterbranch@doh.hawaii.gov or mail them to P.O. BOX 3378, Honolulu, Hawaii 96801-3378.

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About the Author

  • Joel Lau
    Joel Lau is a Civil Beat summer news intern. He grew up on Oahu and graduated from Hawaii Baptist Academy. He is a student at Boston University, majoring in journalism and political science, and plans to return there for his sophomore year in September. Follow him on Twitter @JoelLau808.