In 2016, Hawaii island residents lost access to a popular campsite, fishing stream and surf spot due to concerns over lead contamination in Kolekole Beach Park, north of Hilo.

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However, in March 2020, the Hawaii Department of Transportation reopened public access after taking actions to warn park-goers with posted signs, maintain grass growth to cover bare soil and block off areas with the highest levels of contamination.

Now, after reviewing six potential remedies, the Department of Health and DOT are proposing a long-term solution to remove all soil exceeding a DOH standard of 200 milligrams of lead per kilogram of soil and replacing it with clean fill.

According to Tom Gilmore, DOH remediation project manager, both departments prefer off-site disposal.

“This alternative is better than the other options, which would require continued involvement” of the two departments, Gilmore said.

An aerial view of the river mouth from Kolekole Bridge.
An aerial view of the river mouth from Kolekole Bridge on Hawaii island. Courtesy: Blake McNaughton

Lead Paint On A Bridge

Originally part of a railroad, the park’s Kolekole Stream Bridge was rebuilt for cars in 1950 and painted over with lead-based paint that, after years of weathering, released chips into the soil below.

In 2001, the lead paint was removed but initial soil samplings west of the bridge found concentrations of lead surpassing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 400 milligrams per kilogram for parks.

The aerial map view of Kolekole Stream Park shows the surface soil removal area in yellow. Hawaii Department of Health

After closure, additional assessments found higher lead concentrations in open grassy areas of the park while the soil along the stream banks were below screening levels.

County employees doing lawn maintenance in the park wore badges that collected dust as they worked. Those tests found no lead exposure risk for regular activities in the park. But there was a higher risk for young children who might play in the dirt and ingest soil.

High lead exposure can result in anemia, kidney and brain damage and — in extremely high exposures — death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead is more harmful to young children, causing developmental issues. But state reports say there is only one grassy area that exceeds the applicable DOH standard, now fenced off to prevent public access.

The Timeline Is Tricky

Currently, the DOT and DOH do not have money to complete the cleanup, Gilmore said. In the meantime, he said, the departments are preparing paperwork and seeking approvals to avoid delay once the money comes through.

“There is no timeframe for cleanup now,” he said. And for some Hawaii island residents the uncertain timeline has been frustrating.

Makahanaloa Fishing Association Vice President Blake McNaughton said the community supports the soil removal and cleanup. But he said that access to the stream and ocean are essential to many.

“If anybody in the community is upset, it’s because of a lack of clear timeline and transparency on whether they’re going to close the park, which I would assume they would have to for people’s safety when they’re working in that area,” McNaughton said.

Isiah Ishigo hold his fresh catch of the day in Kolekole Beach Park.
Isiah Ishigo holds his fresh catches of the day below the Kolekole Bridge. Courtesy: Aaron Ishigo

Between 2016 and 2020, McNaughton said many fisherman did not understand why they couldn’t continue to access the stream when reports found acceptable levels of contamination along the stream edge.

“We have more and more of our traditional fishing grounds being gated and being blocked off,” he said. “It’s just a feeling that we’re being cut off from our refrigerator.”

On top of access issues, when the park reopened in 2020, the restroom and pavilions were not maintained. Now, there is no restroom access and McNaughton questions why officials did not use the park closure to improve facilities that were in need of repair before.

According to Fenix Grange, DOH supervisor of the site discovery, assessment and remediation section, the departments are seeking public comments for the next 30 days.

“We do want people to be able to have a chance to understand what’s happening and comment because I think it’s been really confusing to the public,” she said.

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