After the ebb and flow of Covid-19 restrictions and closures for over a year, July was an exciting time for public pool users. The city announced the reopening of lane swimming.
But the bliss didn’t last long for frequent swimmers. In September, there was a new problem — there weren’t enough chemical supplies to maintain pools in compliance with Department of Health guidelines.
It’s one example of how supply chain disruptions, in combination with other routine problems in chemical manufacturing, are affecting everyday life in Hawaii. A crunch in carbon dioxide supplies, for instance, is hitting not only pools, but breweries and other businesses that rely on it.
“The latest challenge (for) pools is the supply chain back up globally,” Laura Thielen, director for the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, told Civil Beat’s editorial board last week. “It’s impacting chemicals that are coming into Hawaii.”
Pools, of course, also need chlorine. There’s a manufacturer of chlorine in Hawaii, but its supply of raw materials is dependent on mainland shipments, said Nathan Serota, spokesman for the parks department. The supply chain has been bottled up in Los Angeles and Long Beach, ports that Hawaii relies upon heavily.
City pools also depend on carbon dioxide, circulated in the water by automatic pumps to balance pH levels.
Carbon dioxide has many commercial uses: carbonating beverages, softening water, manufacturing aspirin, producing dry ice and dispensing beer. The list goes on, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In September, the national supply of carbon dioxide tightened due to the slowdown of production during pandemic closures, Gas World reported.
Oahu’s carbon dioxide problem is indirectly tied to supply chains. The one facility that produces carbon dioxide for the entire state, Air Gas Hawaii, experienced a power outage that caused mechanical problems and has since been running at about 50% capacity, according to Margie Simonson, bulk distribution manager for Desert Isle Beverages, which supplies bulk carbon dioxide to customers such as restaurants.
Air Gas Hawaii could not be reached for this story.
In normal times, businesses could look to mainland suppliers of carbon dioxide instead. But as a result of the choke points created by the pandemic, that’s not an option.
On some mornings, “I have no C02 for my drivers to deliver,” Simonson said. “So I have to call up the customers on delivery day and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry we can’t make delivery! I hope you don’t need it yet.’”
After a short closure in late September, city pools adapted by buying smaller amounts of chlorine from local distributors and using a chemical alternative to carbon dioxide.
“Because we’ve been having a shortage of carbon dioxide, we’ve been switching to muriatic acid, more commonly known as hydrochloric acid, but that has to be inputted manually,” Serota said.
City pool custodians stop work at about 4 p.m., so most pools close one hour later to make sure they’re safe for public use, Serota said.
Ky Wong, coach of the Manoa Aquatics swim club, said the changes have cut practice hours in half. Normally, swimmers practice five days a week for nearly two hours. Now, they’re only allowed to use the pool from 4-5 p.m. three days a week.
“They can’t figure out a way to keep the pH levels safe to swim after five o’clock, so we’re cut short,” he said.
Wong said that restricted hours have eroded his students’ motivation. Some swimmers adapted by practicing in privately owned pools with private coaches. But others did not have the financial means to do that.
“Only a select few are capable of affording the opportunity and accessibility to the resources to improve,” Wong said.
But Simonson said that she’s had to prioritize supplying restaurants and breweries over city pools because makers of sodas and beers don’t have any alternatives. Breweries would shut down without carbon dioxide.
Joe Lorenzen, brewmaster at Waikiki Brewing Company, said the company’s been able to meet demand so far but has no back-up plan if its carbon dioxide supply runs out.
When beer is moved from the fermentation tank to a tank where it’s clarified and carbonated, it’s purged with carbon dioxide to avoid interaction with oxygen.
“If oxygen is introduced, after that point, it degrades the quality of the beer really quickly,” Lorenzen said. “It makes it start to taste like cardboard, and just not good.”
Nitrogen is a possible substitute. But if companies switched to that method, a nitrogen shortage would quickly follow, he said.
Thielen said that Hawaii is just starting to feel the ripple effects of supply shortages.
“I’m kind of expecting that the impacts from Covid are going to be continuing for a couple of years,” she said. “We’re having difficulty getting lifeguards to the pools, the chemicals, the herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, the chlorine, the cleaning supplies — all that kind of stuff is going to be impacted, I think, over the next year or two as things sort themselves out.”
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Lauren Teruya is a Poynter-Koch reporting fellow for Honolulu Civil Beat. She is a graduate of Iolani School and holds a master's degree in specialized journalism from the University of Southern California. You can reach her at email@example.com.