LIHUE, Kauai — It took Dr. Brigitte Carreau a decade to afford a home on Kauai.

kauai locator badgeA pediatrician at Wilcox Medical Center, the first-time buyer was thrilled to purchase a three-bedroom duplex in a new development in the Hanamaulu neighborhood of Lihue in 2019.

With new construction, she figured she wouldn’t have problems cropping up any time soon. But Carreau quickly discovered what she and dozens of her neighbors have come to know as “the black slime” — a sticky, smelly sludge that seeps from their water faucets and shower heads, sometimes in long, oozing strands.

“When I brushed my teeth, I’d gag and spit up junk,” Carreau said. “It was like, ‘What is this stuff?’”

The source of the so-called black slime remains mysterious. State health regulators said the problem is isolated to the 151-unit Hooluana at Kohea Loa housing development, a mix of market rate and affordable single-family homes and duplexes. More than half of the Hooluana homeowners say they’re affected.

Michael Miyahira, the engineering section chief of the Hawaii Health Department’s Safe Drinking Water Branch, called the situation “terrible” and said there are no similar complaints anywhere else in the state.

And while there’s no firm proof, some residents say they believe the water is making them sick. 

Couple stand in front of house
Linda Sprengeler and Timothy Harris say they’ve spent nearly $170,000 to repeatedly test their water and install a new copper pipe plumbing system. Other residents who can’t afford to replace their plumbing say they feel trapped in a home they fear could be making them sick. Civil Beat/Brittany Lyte/2021

Aaron Lester, a Kauai police detective, said his wife wears wax ear plugs in the shower to avoid double ear infections, which she started getting after moving into the development. 

Perry Chan, a tennis coach, said he and his daughter break out in skin rashes after they shower.

Jessica Nishimoto said she and her son have developed skin rashes that don’t go away and chronic allergies that they treat with medication.

Matt Woods, the cafeteria manager at Kapaa High School, said he also gets skin rashes and complained that his routine cuts and scrapes take a puzzlingly long time to heal. 

“I’ve had problems I’ve never had in my life before,” Woods said. “I have all these bumps that showed up soon after I moved into the home on my hands, my chest and my face, and I was told by doctors it’s from bacteria under the skin. These bumps on my body just haven’t gone away since I moved in and I can almost guarantee it’s from showering.”

Health experts say it’s difficult to trace the cause of a health problem to a definitive source because of the myriad factors that could contribute to the onset of an illness.

Nonetheless, the unaddressed water issue has caused buyers’ remorse among some homeowners who unknowingly purchased brand new houses with what they now believe to be questionable water quality. Residents here say they feel powerless when it comes to getting the housing developer D.R. Horton to remedy the situation. 

“It was my first home ever and I wish I wouldn’t have bought it,” said Carreau, who said she thinks the water in her shower prevented her surgical wounds from properly healing last year when she had her appendix removed.

“And I can’t even sell it,” she added. “I want to sell it, I want to get out of that place. But who’s going to want to buy my problem?”

A Band-Aid Fix

Homeowners in the Hooluana complex first complained to D.R. Horton, the nation’s largest home developer, that their water appeared to be contaminated with some kind of bacteria in early 2019. At least 20 homeowners lodged formal complaints.

The developer paid for water testing in those homes. In lab results reviewed by Civil Beat, some tests found favorable conditions for bacterial growth.

This photo from April 2019 illustrates the “black slime” oozing out of the kitchen faucet in the home of Linda Sprengeler and Timothy Harris. The couple bought the newly constructed home in September 2018. Courtesy: Linda Sprengeler/2019

In response to water test results, D.R. Horton paid to replace plumbing fixtures and chlorinate the pipes in some homes. The builder also offered a stipend for lodging and food to homeowners who opted for the weekend-long chlorination treatments.

But after a few months, homeowners say the black slime returned.

Documents obtained by homeowners and reviewed by Civil Beat indicate that the developer concluded earlier this year that the source of the black slime problem is the municipal water supply. 

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii Health Department separately reviewed compliance data for the Kauai Department of Water, which supplies water to the Hooluana subdivision, and both agencies determined the system’s water quality meets all state and federal standards and is safe to drink. 

Miyahira, from the state’s Safe Drinking Water Branch, said the the EPA is actively investigating the Hooluana complaints. The DOH investigation also remains open.

“DOH does not have the necessary extensive background … to diagnose this serious issue and we do not have recommendations to offer at this time,” he said. “But even in these situations where it’s not in our jurisdiction, we’re going to try and assist the homeowners because we certainly wouldn’t want our friends and relatives and kupuna and keiki drinking that kind of water in the first place.”

When the positive effects of the chlorination treatments wore off, several homeowners continued to pursue their complaint with the developer but say they haven’t gotten any traction.

Some say the developer seemed to be dragging its feet until the clock ran out on the one-year warranty period during which D.R. Horton would have been responsible for construction defects.

D.R. Horton did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

While most residents have stopped drinking and cooking with the water, most say they are still using it to shower and launder their clothes.

“Everyone who lives here knows that there’s a problem,” said Woods, who lives with his wife and 9-year-old son. “But we sank everything into buying this home and getting into this place we’ve been wanting for so long, and then in order to even pursue this it’s tens of thousands of dollars to get water tests done and lawyers and everything else. To try to go up against one of the biggest builders in the U.S., it could bankrupt you to even try.”

‘I’m Traumatized’

Although experts say it’s nearly impossible to know if water contamination is the culprit behind residents’ health woes, one couple that paid $70,000 to replace their home’s plumbing system claim they no longer have any ill effects.

Matt Woods, who works as a cafeteria manager at Kapaa High School, said he developed a bumpy rash on his face, chest and hands after moving into his Hooluana home. The culprit, he believes, is bacteria in the water he uses to shower. Courtesy: Lani Saiki-Woods/2021

Prior to moving into their Hooluana home in 2018, Linda Sprengeler and Timothy Harris said they had none of the health problems they developed within months of moving into the subdivision. 

But in their new home, Harris said he started suffering from chronic itchy skin. Sprengeler said she developed persistent eye, ear, throat, lung and yeast infections.

“That’s when I realized I had to get it fixed because I was constantly getting sick and my doctor was telling me, ‘Look, Linda, I can’t keep giving you antibiotics every month,’” Sprengeler said.

When her doctor suggested she stop showering in the water compromised by the black slime problem, Sprengeler said she and her husband hooked up a 75-foot potable water hose to an outdoor hose bibb and ran it through the garage and into their bathroom, where they used a zip tie to secure it to the shower head.

Once they started showering with cold water from the hose, which bypassed their home plumbing system, the couple said all of their health problems vanished. But they are still grappling with the emotional aftershock.

“I’m traumatized by all this,” Sprengeler said. “I’ll never be the same.”

The couple was so distraught over the water issue that they paid $70,000 to replace their home plumbing system with new copper pipes. They have since been able to use their water normally, although they say they still pay out of pocket to test their water periodically.

All told, Sprengeler said she and her husband have invested nearly $170,000 to replace their plumbing system and repeatedly test their water quality. Although they’ve rid their lives of the black slime, they say more than 75 other homeowners in the Hooluana development are still dealing with it.

“So many of our neighbors are literally trapped,” Sprengeler said. “They can’t afford to fix their plumbing system, but they really can’t sell their home until they fix the plumbing system. So they just have to sit there and live with the contamination. There’s nothing they can do about it.”

Is It Safe To Live Here?

Some home buyers affected by the black slime issue have fewer options than others.

There are seven Hooluana buyers who purchased an affordable unit through a county homebuyer program available to workers who meet certain income requirements.

To ensure that homes sold at workforce prices are not simply flipped by buyers and resold at higher prices, Kauai County Housing Director Adam Roversi said these homes have deed restrictions that run for 20 years, giving the county housing agency the option to buy back the homes at a predetermined price if the buyer chooses to sell. This helps ensure that the county can then resell these units to residents at similarly affordable prices, he said.

Buyers of these designated workforce housing units are also required to physically occupy the homes.

In addition to alerting the subdivision developer and state and federal health regulators to the black slime problem, residents at Hooluana have raised their concerns with Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami and members of the County Council.

Sarah Blane, the mayor’s chief of staff, said the county is researching the issue and will reach out to the developer on behalf of the Hooluana homeowners.

“We know D.R. Horton to be a national corporation with a longtime presence in Hawaii and we are hopeful the company will work with the homeowners to rectify the issue,” Blane said in an email.

Meanwhile, the question for Hooluana home buyers remains the same: Is it safe to live here?

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