Despite reassurances, some residents remain on edge.

Maui County’s top water official says initial sampling of the drinking water supply in Lahaina and Upper Kula turned up no evidence of contamination that exceeds public health standards.

Despite the results released on Wednesday and posted on the county website, unsafe water advisories remain in place in Lahaina and parts of Upper Kula in the wake of the Aug. 8 wildfires that killed at least 115 people and left an estimated 1,100 missing.

Benzene was detected in water tests in the north end of the burn zone in Lahaina while toluene – another volatile organic compound – turned up in some samples taken in Upper Kula. However, neither level was above standards considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Hawaii Department of Health, said John Stufflebean, director of Maui County’s Department of Water Supply, late Wednesday afternoon.

Zach Butler and Dana Lupiloff of Kula fill up jugs of clean water for their home amid an unsafe water advisory in effect in their neighborhood. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“That’s good news. We are continuing the testing with the objective of removing areas from the advisory when it is totally safe to do so, and that takes several rounds of testing,” Stufflebean said.

Maps of areas covered by the unsafe water advisories are available on the county website. Water in any area not included in an advisory is considered safe, said Stufflebean.

Wildfires can harm public drinking water systems because ash, contaminants, nutrients and other harmful substances can leach into streams, rivers and downstream reservoirs, according to the EPA. Plastics used in plumbing can also burn and release benzene and other cancer-causing substances into drinking water systems.

John Stufflebean directs Maui County’s Department of Water Supply. (Provided: Maui County)

Maui County is receiving assistance from water quality experts from Purdue University and the University of Hawaii as well as public works and irrigation district directors from communities in Louisville, Colorado and California that have experienced major wildfires and associated water issues in recent years.

A public meeting to discuss the water results and other matters related to the wildfire disaster in Upper Kula is scheduled for Thursday night at the Kula Community Center.

Stufflebean said he’ll be at the meeting.

Some residents of Upper Kula remain on edge about the water situation.

They’ve been advised not to drink the water or try to filter it, to limit their use of hot water, to limit their shower time, use lukewarm water only in a ventilated space, to not take baths, to wash clothing in cold water and to keep the windows open if they chose to use the water at all, among other precautions.

“It’s rather disconcerting,” said Zoltan Balogh, a self-employed carpenter who was volunteering at the community aid station at Kula Lodge on Wednesday.

Zoltan Balogh is a Kula carpenter who used water in the days after the Aug. 8, 2023 wildfire before the county had issued an unsafe water advisory. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

Before he was aware of the unsafe water advisory, Balogh said he regularly used the water not knowing it could be contaminated. “I drank it. I bathed in it. I washed my dishes in it.”

Even after he learned of the advisory, Balough said he took showers a couple of times and hoped for the best. “I was desperately dirty. I said, ‘Let’s hope this isn’t toxic.’”

Kula resident Quincy Dein said some people in his neighborhood are upset because they were using the water before the county expanded the unsafe water advisory maps in recent days.

One of his neighbors who has children has been using home test kits to try to determine if the water is safe or not. “We were told the area where we live is fine,” Dein said. “Then they quietly updated the maps.”

He described the situation as alarming and plans to attend the public meeting on Thursday in hopes of getting some of his questions answered.

Scheduled to be in attendance at the meeting are Maui County Council members Yuki Lei Sugimura and Nohelani U`u-Hodgins, Sen. Lynn DeCoite, Rep. Kyle Yamashita and representatives from the EPA and American Red Cross, according to Sugimura who represents Upcountry and organized the meeting.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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