The Howard Hughes Corp. describes its latest condo tower, Koula as a “dynamic destination where nature and elegance coexist,” with 565 studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom condos towering over 37,000 square feet of retail space.

But ask some tenants of Kewalo Basin Harbor – which Howard Hughes also manages – and they have a different view of their landlord’s newest luxe condo tower. Dust and dirt from Koula, they say, is polluting the harbor and damaging boats.

Kewalo Basin Harbor with the Kakaako condominium skyline and ongoing construction in the background.
Some boat owners say Howard Hughes’ construction project, visible in the background, is damaging their boats and causing run-off in the harbor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

It’s hard to say if run-off from the storm drain is coming from Howard Hughes’ adjacent project, as some tenants presume, or some other source. But an examination of the process shows Howard Hughes has received a number of automatically granted permits for construction run-off, including one for Koula. Such permits don’t require the company to say how much run-off it’s releasing into the storm drains or make public its plan for mitigating the “stormwater pollution.”

Doug Johnstone, president of Howard Hughes’ Hawaii region, declined to comment, saying the company was not aware of complaints about rust particles on boats allegedly caused by construction dust or muddy run-off from storm drains, which harbor tenants have complained about.

“We don’t have info or reports of what you’re describing,” he wrote in an email. “We’ll double check the appropriate site controls are in place and are relaying the same to contractors.”

But Bob Gonzales summed up the feelings of several tenants recently while gazing at Koula from the deck of his 41-foot sailboat, Wind of Change. Just across Ala Moana Boulevard were dunes of dirt and broken concrete, orange earth-moving machines, yellow cranes and the concrete honeycomb of the unfinished condo tower where the smallest studio starts in “the low $500,000s,” according to Howard Hughes.

Even at that price, Howard Hughes had sold 459 condos or just over 81%, by June, the company’s latest quarterly SEC filing shows. Meanwhile, Gonzales said, “Those guys don’t want to spend money for a curtain” to keep construction dust from getting airborne and floating onto boats in the harbor.

Shirtless and barrel-chested, Gonzales showed speckles of rust on the boat that he said he had painted just a few years before. The particles were about the size of pin heads or ants, and, he said, they’re multiplying. Gonzales shook his head about what he said was the Dallas-based developer’s lack of regard for the environment.

“This is Hawaii,” he said. “They don’t give a shit about us.”

Federally Protected Turtles Are ‘Eating Muddy Seaweed’

Meanwhile, even closer to the construction site, Jen Murphy, a worker with the glass-bottom boat company Leahi Hawaii Voyager, looked down at brown water billowing into the harbor pushing along baseball-sized clumps of seaweed.

“I saw it earlier and was like, ‘That’s disgusting,’” she said. Making matters worse, she said, earlier that day, Hawaiian green sea turtles, a federally protected species, had been feeding on the seaweed.

“So they’re eating muddy seaweed,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s colleague Naholo Wa’a was even more blunt.

“Ever since they’ve been doing all of their crap down here,” he said of Howard Hughes, “we’ve been getting all of their crap.”

How much Howard Hughes’ project across the street is to blame for the brown water in the harbor is unclear. What is clear is Howard Hughes has been very busy in Kakaako. In less than a decade, the company has recreated the eastern end of the oceanside neighborhood, adding hip restaurants and boutiques and constructing 1,382 condo units in four massive towers: Waiea, Anaha, Ae’o, Ke Kilohana. It now has another 1,400 units in the works located in three towers, Koula, Aalii and Victoria Place.

Big construction projects, especially those near the ocean, carry inherent environmental risks, and Howard Hughes’ projects are no exception. Accordingly, over the years, the company’s projects have gotten half a dozen or so “general permits” allowing for incidental construction run-off into storm drain systems.

Howard Hughes Kewalo Basin Debris
On a recent afternoon, 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] 
Because the drains flow into the ocean, discharges are governed by the U.S. Clean Water Act, which is administered by the Hawaii Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch. DOH records show that Koula got a “general permit” for “Storm water associated with construction activities,” on April 4, 2019.

It’s technically called a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. Some so-called “point-source” NPDES permits are tailored for certain projects with detailed information on pollution limits and reporting requirements. But general permits like the ones for construction runoff are broad.

Calls to the EPA about the Koula general permit were referred to Mike Kaneshiro, a permit writer with the DOH Clean Water Branch. Kaneshiro said he wasn’t authorized to comment specifically about Koula’s permit, but he pointed to Hawaii Administrative Rules that show the permit and its requirements.

Under the rules, a construction company simply files a notice, and the department grants the permit as a matter of course: there’s no discretionary oversight involved. While the permit does require a potential polluter like Howard Hughes to develop a Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan to mitigate discharges, that plan isn’t a public document, and there are no reporting requirements on amounts released.

In brief, there’s no way to know how much construction pollution Howard Hughes’ projects have discharged into the ocean via the storm drains.

That’s a big problem and one not confined to Howard Hughes, says Donna Wong, executive director of the environmental organization Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, which has waged numerous fights to protect Hawaii’s oceans over the past three decades.

“That’s DOH, they just give these things out,” she said of the general permits.

She added: “There’s no follow through. The only way to get anything done is to complain.”

Towering cranes and condominium construction mauka of the Kewalo Basin Harbor.
Towering cranes and condominium construction mauka of the Kewalo Basin Harbor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

While the mud in the harbor might be permitted, the dust issues are murkier – and don’t seem to be allowed under any permit.

Boat operators have been dealing with rust issues since not long after work began on Koula, said Krystine Samson-Boughton, general manager of the Na Hoku II and Manu Kai catamarans known for their cruises from Waikiki Beach.

There’s no reason for rust to appear on the catamarans, she said, because the decks are made of fiberglass and are treated with a non-skid material. But speckles of rust regularly appear on the boats. She, Gonzales and others can only presume it’s some kind of metallic dust or particles associated with construction.

“There’s nothing else that explains why that would be there,” she said of the rust, which appears on the boats “virtually head to toe.” Na Hoku II and Manu Kai have been repainted, but the rust keeps coming back, she said.

Boat owners have been complaining for more than a year to no avail, she said. A report by Hawaii News Now in July 2020 did little to change things, Samson-Boughton said. Meanwhile, the muddy water has raised additional concerns.

Like other tour operators who depend not just on clean boats but a clean ocean, Samson-Boughton said she’s concerned about the health of the reef and sea life in and around the harbor and at nearby Kewalo’s surf spot.

“There’s full-on marine life there,” she said. “The whole thing is pretty unsavory. That’s what I would call it.”

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