How An EPA Decision On Trash Could Lead To Cleaner Beaches Across Hawaii

To get to Kamilo Beach, a Hawaii shoreline notoriously plagued by plastic pollution, you need an off-road vehicle that can handle the hourlong, stomach-churning drive over dirt, dust and lava rock to the southern edge of the Big Island.

Staff and volunteers with the Hawaii Wildlife Fund have been making this rugged trip regularly for almost two decades. Since 2003, they’ve hauled a reported 290 tons of debris off the remote beach and surrounding coastline, including fishing nets so heavy that they needed a winch placed on a truck to lug the material from the shore.

These days, Kamilo looks cleaner than in years prior — at least at first glance. The frequent cleanups, sustained during the COVID-19 era, manage to keep the larger debris from piling up.

But look more closely and thousands of tiny plastic fragments still remain, dotting the shoreline with artificial pinks and blues and other bright colors that don’t belong.

Kamilo Beach Cleanup Microplastics Sand
Thousands of tiny plastic fragments and even smaller microplastic bits line the sand at Kamilo Beach. Ku'u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

Also pervasive are the smaller microplastics, measuring no longer than 5 millimeters and often too small for the human eye to see.

“We’ve been trying for years to find that ‘plastic magnet’ to take care of the job for all that little stuff,” Hawaii Wildlife Fund President Megan Lamson said after a recent marine debris survey at Kamilo. “It’s a huge feat to tackle because there’s so much of it and it’s so very small.”

Now, thanks to a new federal decision, state health officials may soon have to tackle that feat at Kamilo and other marine waters — even if they don’t think the action is justified.

The onslaught of trash pumped into the world’s oceans harms and kills seabirds, endangered monk seals, sea turtles and whales, among other marine life. The microplastics in particular have been found to spread into the food chain.

“It’s the little stuff that’s the most frightening,” Lamson said.

‘This Is Just The Beginning’

The Environmental Protection Agency earlier this summer ruled that Kamilo, a stretch of shore less than a mile long that’s been nicknamed “junk beach,” “plastic beach,” and “trash beach” must be listed as “impaired” under the Clean Water Act because of all the trash that washes up there.

The decision also applied to tiny Tern Island, about 700 miles northwest of Kamilo in French Frigate Shoals, where federal scientists have removed at least 77 tons of debris during visits there.

The move comes after the Center for Biological Diversity, Surfrider Foundation and Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii sued the EPA in February, trying to force the agency to compel state officials to list Kamilo, Tern and 17 other Hawaii waterways as impaired due to plastic pollution.

The state Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch had refused to list those waterways, saying that there’s “insufficient information and assessment methodology to make a determination of water quality impairment due to plastics.”

Tern Island
Sooty Terns and a few other kinds of birds on Tern Island, where heaps of marine debris regularly wash ashore. Elizabeth Crapo, NOAA

After the environmental groups filed suit, the EPA told DOH to re-examine the waters in question. The state maintained that the data wasn’t strong enough to list them. In 17 out of 19 cases, the EPA agreed.

But the EPA didn’t agree when it came to Kamilo Beach and Tern Island. It found the evidence was there to list those places as impaired.

The groups hope that’s the small opening they need to finally force state action on a large scale.

“This is just the beginning,” said Maxx Phillips, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Hawaii director. If the state has to address the debris washing up at Kamilo and Tern, it’ll inevitably have to address similar conditions found at other beaches too, she said.

“The EPA and the state can no longer ignore the growing body of both western scientific evidence, indigenous knowledge and community-based observations that clearly demonstrate plastic is a pollutant in our nearshore waters,” Phillips said.

The EPA’s decision went through a 30-day comment period that ended last week.

‘Ready For The Fight’

If it stands, state clean water officials say they’ll have to develop unprecedented methods to assess how much debris is polluting those waters and how to reduce the impacts. It’s not clear whether any other states have yet developed such methods, but the EPA stated in an email that several others “are currently evaluating similar data” related to plastics and other forms of trash.

That “may” prompt regulators to list more Hawaii beaches as impaired for trash, opening them to protection as well, said Myron Honda, a monitoring and analysis supervisor for the Clean Water Branch.

“I wouldn’t say it guarantees that, but it may,” he said.

Currently, the branch focuses on the pollutants that dirty Hawaii’s waters from cesspools, sewage and runoff, Honda said. That includes compounds such as nitrogen, phosphorus and chlorophyll A.

Its limited staff doesn’t have the resources at this point to tackle marine debris pollution too, he added, especially as government funding dwindles thanks to the impacts of the coronavirus. Officials with the branch did not respond to follow-up queries this week, however, on how much funding they receive and how much of it is at risk due to the pandemic.

Kamilo Beach Cleanup Volunteers
Crews conducting a recent debris survey at Kamilo pulled several large derelict fishnets from the shore. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

If forced to act, the Clean Water Branch would largely rely on the EPA for guidance, Honda said. The EPA, meanwhile, said in a statement that it’s “considering whether additional steps could be taken regarding trash to support states in meeting the requirements” of the Clean Water Act.

Honda noted that most of the marine debris washing ashore originates outside of Hawaii and thus outside the state’s control. “I don’t know how we’re going to deal with that,” he said.

But that doesn’t excuse the state from protecting Hawaii’s marine waters, Phillips said.

“Every time we purchase a piece of plastic, we are part of the problem,” she said. “It goes beyond pointing the finger overseas.”

Her nonprofit and other local groups will keep the pressure on the state to act if needed.

“Lack of will is probably more of an issue than lack of resources,” she said. “If they don’t do their job again, we’ll sue them again. It’s unfortunate that the burden has fallen on the public to ensure that our regulatory agencies” protect natural resources.

“We’re ready for the fight,” Phillips said.

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Lahela Parker Bailey Volunteer
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Mike Stone Graduate Student
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Jenn Randall Conservation Biologist

Building A Better Data Stream

What the government regulators and environmental groups do agree on is that there needs to be more precise modeling on how marine debris behaves. Where does it start and where does it end? How quickly does it accumulate on certain shorelines? Until the research can explain that in greater detail, Hawaii’s marine waters and wildlife won’t be protected as effectively, they say.

The state’s analysis of the 19 plastic-polluted waterways was based on five studies. The most recent one was published in 2014. The oldest dates back to 2004. The EPA found that there was further evidence beyond those five studies that was not considered by the state to indicate Kamilo and Tern should be listed for protection.

Imagine what happens, researchers and advocates say, when better data comes online.

On a recent Hawaii Wildlife Fund trip to Kamilo, volunteer crews spent as much time documenting what they found as they did cleaning. They painstakingly sorted smaller debris by category. Bottle caps would go in one bucket; jugs and containers would go in another.

The group does this survey about once a month to help track and trace what exactly is washing ashore, said Lamson, the group’s president. The most common brand they find there is Nestle, although Lamson added that’s partly because the company inscribes its name into its plastic products. Most other companies’ labels wash away before the plastic arrives.

Kamilo Beach Megan Korean Octopus Trap
Hawaii Wildlife Fund President Megan Lamson holds a piece of debris, believed to be an octopus trap, during a recent survey. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

The survey protocols were set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. The survey visits don’t remove nearly as much debris as the regular community cleanups, but they’re important in the long run to support policy changes, Lamson said.

Only a fraction is understood about the millions of tons of debris dumped in the ocean, said Nikolai Maximenko of the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center. It’s a complex system, and the large ocean currents that carry the debris only reveal a general sense of what’s happening.

Kamilo, for example, is “special” in that so much debris lands there, but it’s still unclear what mix of wind, currents, topography and other forces cause so much trash to funnel into that one area, Maximenko said.

He suspects it’s largely because Kamilo is a pocket of beach surrounded by sea cliffs. It’s a “perfect place to collect debris that was rejected by other neighborhoods,” he said.

Still, it’s a difficult task to track where debris is heading, Maximenko added. He’s trying to help start an “Integrated Marine Debris Observing System,” which would more closely study and track the material. Better imagery from a satellite slated to launch in 2022 should also help, he said.

Researchers need “opportunities to better understand the smaller, more complicated processes” at play, he said. “When we don’t know something, this is where we must go and we must understand,” Maximenko said.

For instance, researchers aren’t finding as much microplastic in the ocean as they expected, he said.

“It must go somewhere,” Maximenko said.

One logical explanation, he added, is that the missing microplastic is going into marine life.

Fewer Fish, More Nets

While the Hawaii Wildlife Fund conducted its recent debris survey, Kau resident Tony Barro fished Kamilo’s nearshore waters “to put food on the table.”

Barro, 62, said that Kamilo has been an important source of food for his family for generations. His grandparents would regularly fish there, he said.

However, he’s noticed that in the past decade the fish aren’t nearly as abundant there as they used to be.

“I don’t know why (but) the reef, it’s dead. It’s not alive. There aren’t any more fish coming in,” he said.

Over several hours he managed to catch nine small fish, including weke and papio, which would amount to one meal for his family, he said, before driving off to try his luck at another spot.

Kamilo Beach Tony Barro Fishing
Tony Barro’s family has been fishing at Kamilo for decades as a way to put food on the table. In recent years there have been fewer fish to catch and the reefs there are dying, he said. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

To be sure, plenty of waterways in Hawaii have previously been listed as impaired due to levels of trash. However, the vast majority are inland streams. Regulators don’t distinguish plastic or marine debris from other trash when making that designation.

Prior to Kamilo and Tern only two other marine waterways were listed for their trash: Hanauma Bay — one of the most popular visitor destinations on Oahu — and Honolulu Harbor’s waterfront near Aloha Tower.

Both of those sites were listed over a decade ago by the now-defunct Environmental Planning Office, before the Clean Water Branch inherited the list, Honda said.

The branch doesn’t have plans in place to deal with trash at Hanauma Bay and Honolulu Harbor, he said. It also can’t remove them from the list until it can show they’re no longer impaired, Honda added. They’ve remained in a sort of limbo.

Listing Kamilo and Tern would represent a significant new step toward regulatory protection against debris pollution, Phillips and other local advocates say.

The Big Island’s debris problems are pervasive and not just limited to its southeastern corner. Cleanups earlier this month in West Hawaii yielded more than 1,200 pounds of nets and trash from the beaches and reefs there, according the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Kamilo Beach Cleanup Debri Net Pile
A worker piles up marine debris at Kamilo Beach. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

After finishing their recent Kamilo debris survey, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund crew added some net they collected at Kamilo to their most recent, 6-ton pile of derelict fish net stored at the Waiohinu Transfer Station.

Eventually it will be shipped to Oahu, where it will be incinerated at the island’s H-POWER plant and converted to energy thanks to a coalition of public and private groups that covers the costs.

One of its goals is to help save limited landfill space on the Big Island.

Staff and volunteers occasionally take home some of the materials they pull from Kamilo and other beaches, either to store or to use. Lamson quipped that her husband will disown her if she brings home any more nets. “There’s only so much you can bring home,” she said.

Volunteer Lahela Parker Bailey brought home a large black pipe that she said would go to good use for irrigation on her property. “It was sea garbage, and now it’s serving a purpose on my farm,” she said.

Crates and other items she brings home to help grow food “remind me of my reciprocal relationship with the ocean,” Bailey added.

Conservation biologist Jenn Randall fastened hammocks for her cats and a patio, or “cat-io,” using derelict nets.

“My cats love it. I think my neighbors get a kick out of me, but they actually like what I’m doing,” she said. “They can see I’m repurposing this net that was floating in the ocean as a ghost net.”

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