Muddy water flowing into Kewalo Basin Harbor probably represents a violation of state and federal clean water laws, the enforcement supervisor of the Hawaii Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch said on Tuesday.

Kewalo Basin Harbor with Kakaako condominium skyline and ongoing construction.
Tenants of Kewalo Basin Harbor have reported muddy run-off in the harbor, and Department of Health officials say it’s likely a Clean Water Act violation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

But the supervisor, Matthew Kurano, said it’s too soon to pinpoint the source of the pollution.

Howard Hughes Kewalo Basin Debris
On Oct. 26, muddy water flowed in Kewalo Basin Harbor from the storm drain across Ala Moana Boulevard from Howard Hughes Corp.’s construction site. [Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat] 
Clean Water Branch officials initially declined to comment in response to allegations by harbor tenants that the Howard Hughes Corp. was discharging waste water into the harbor from its construction site through a storm drain. But Kurano came forward on Tuesday after Civil Beat published a video documenting the pollution.

Howard Hughes, which is developing the eastern end of Kakaako known as Ward Village, has a permit allowing it to discharge storm water associated with the construction of its latest project, Koula, a 565-unit condo tower between Auahi Street and Ala Moana.

But Kurano said such a permit wouldn’t allow the type of discharge documented by Civil Beat in response to complaints by boat owners.

“Any time we see a discharge that looks like that – a sediment-laden plume – we suspect someone is discharging wash water or something like that,” he said. That sort of activity is not allowed.

“Those permits don’t allow you just to dump your waste,” he added.

Doug Johnstone, Howard Hughes’ Hawaii president, declined to comment for Civil Beat’s first article, saying the company was not aware of complaints about pollution at Kewalo Basin Harbor. He did not respond to another request for comment on Tuesday.

Kurano declined to say when investigators will visit the Koula site. The department generally investigates timely complaints of potential violations, Kurano said. But he also said the department doesn’t like to announce its inspections ahead of time.

Kurano cautioned that the branch doesn’t presume Howard Hughes is to blame. In the past, he said, investigators had thought they had pinpointed a polluter “dead to rights” only to learn from further investigation that their initial belief was wrong.

Kewalo Storm Drains
A Department of Health map of the storm drain system near Kewalo Basin Harbor shows the location of drains, resented by green dots, and underground lines in purple. Civil Beat documented muddy water flowing from the drain at the center at the mauka end of the harbor. Hawaii Department of Health, Clean Water Branch

But he also said, “If it is as straightforward as it seems, then somebody isn’t complying with their permit.”

Howard Hughes has significantly rebuilt Ward Village in the past several years, constructing 1,382 condo units in four massive towers — Waiea, Anaha, Ae’o, Ke Kilohana – as well as retail shops and restaurants, including a two-story Whole Foods Market at the base of Ae’o.

The Woodlands, Texas-based developer has another 1,400 units in the works located in three towers: Koula, Aalii and Victoria Place.

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