State legislators called for government agencies to prioritize the cleaning and testing of the area.

Pualalea Slover, 21, used to go to Pokai Bay as a child to swim, paddle and play in the sand. From barbecues to birthday parties, she would spend countless hours year-round at this beloved beach to celebrate special occasions and to have family gatherings.

With pristine waters and white beaches, this part of West Oahu was frequently visited by tourists and locals alike, including members of the Native Hawaiian community.

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But what used to be a calm and clean ocean-access area and ecosystem relatively quickly has turned into a bacteria-infested shoreline. 

Now comes the cleanup. Hawaii legislators, by approving House Concurrent Resolution 94, have directed several government agencies to pitch in and prioritize the cleaning and testing of this area, increasing protection of its waters and land.

“I actually learned how to swim at Pokai, and I also learned how to paddle there,” Slover said. “My uncle used to give swimming lessons when I was younger, because it’s the perfect place to learn how to swim, and it’s calm.”

“We kind of stopped going when the news started reporting about the high bacteria levels in Pokai Bay,” she added. “Within the last two years, I have only been on the beach twice, and I swam once, but immediately got out because of the way the water feels on my skin. It leaves a sticky, dirty feeling. And when I pass it now, it barely draws a crowd like it used to.”

The pollution is caused by a mixture of problems, including illegal dumping and water runoff containing chemicals from nearby streets, according to the resolution. Bacteria also has accumulated at the restroom facilities from “rinse-off from the showers and fecal bacteria from the toilet plumbing.”

Westside Waianae Pokai Bay South
Pokai Bay used to be popular for its pristine beach and water but now suffers from a bacteria-infested shoreline. (Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021)

With the lack of housing access for people in Hawaii, the resolution added, bathing and regular camping activities in the vicinity may also contribute to the higher levels of pollution seen across the beach.

State legislators urged the Department of Health and the Department of Parks and Recreation to regularly test the levels of contamination in these areas so the public can continue to visit safely. No official timeline was listed in the resolution, but departments were asked to accomplish these tasks as soon as possible.

Department of Parks and Recreation spokesman Nathan Serota said the park’s bathroom was closed in February for a security installation project.

“The project is near completion and we hope to reopen the comfort station (restroom facilities) soon,” he said via email. “We absolutely want to make sure our facility is not contributing to elevated bacteria levels within the bay. We are certainly open to working with the state in this regard.”

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For the Department of Health, according to its written testimony, the testing procedure for contamination levels in the sand is one of the biggest challenges to the cleanup efforts. 

Pokai Bay is considered a Tier 1 beach, meaning that it’s water-tested weekly for enterococci, an indicator of fecal material and bacteria in water. 

The DOH said in written testimony that it has collected 192 samples between January 2019 and March, and only four of these samples exceeded the beach action value, an indicated level of contamination. Follow-up samples collected on the next day for each of these four instances did not exceed the BAV, suggesting that the levels were not enough to be considered highly polluted. The waters may seem and feel different, DOH acknowledged, but the sample results are not always parallel to the community’s experiences while swimming in the waters.

Yet the Department of Health wrote it does not test for the presence of bacteria on land, including sand quality. It cited a lack of reliable testing methods or materials available for the research needed to test sand bacteria levels. The legislators accordingly changed the resolution to heavily prioritize measuring water levels.

“The Department does not have the resources to conduct this type of research,” Health Department Director Kenneth Fink said in written testimony. “Until a reliable test method is developed and a defensible standard or action threshold is established for fecal indicator bacteria levels in sand, the Department is not able to carry out the same procedures and actions under the routine monitoring program.”

In plain language, Slover summed it up as, “The water needs to be cleaned, but people in positions of political power need to also put funding toward improving the area to make sure that the water stays clean, and that we donʻt see another report about bacteria levels in a year.

“Waianae is always overlooked for health, safety, and environmental issues and also has one of the biggest concentrations of Native Hawaiians in the world,” she added. “If they really want to preserve Hawaiʻi, then they need to actually care about our land and people and actually listen to us. Waiʻanae deserves better.”

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