County water director says early water test results are encouraging but it could take awhile before warning advisories are lifted.

Hundreds of Upcountry residents packed a public meeting Thursday evening to learn more about the safety of their drinking water after being told to not use it following the Aug. 8 wildfires that destroyed at least 19 structures in Kula and killed at least 115 people in Lahaina.

The meeting at the Kula Community Center, organized by Maui County Council member Yuki Lei
Sugimura, brought county, state and federal officials together to answer questions and provide what information they could.

The status of what’s in the water was clearly the most pressing concern for attendees given the unsafe drinking water advisory in effect in Upper Kula because of potential wildfire-related contamination. A similar advisory is in place for all of Lahaina, a town of 13,000 that almost completely burned to the ground.

Maui County County member Yuki Lei Sugimura hosted a public meeting Thursday evening at the Kula Community Center to answer concerns about the Upcountry water systems. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Sugimura’s introduction of several officials including Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen, two state lawmakers, representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the American Red Cross, the county Department of Environmental Management was met by a man standing outside the community center who yelled: “What about the water?”  

Several others chimed in, demanding that the county’s director of water supply step up and take the microphone.

At that point, John Stufflebean, who leads the department, stood up and tried to reassure the crowd that the first round of water testing, which consisted of 27 samples, has turned up no levels of toxins that exceed safety limits set by the EPA and enforced by the Hawaii Department of Health.

“Nothing has been detected above health standards,” Stufflebean said.

The Department of Water Supply has updated its map showing current water advisories. (Courtesy: Maui County/Screenshot/2023)
The Department of Water Supply has updated its interactive map showing current water advisories. (Courtesy: Maui County/Screenshot/2023)

The testing, conducted by state and county officials, occurred on Aug. 14 and screened for 23 volatile organic compounds, which are typically industrial solvents. They’re often found in gasoline, paint thinners, dry cleaning agents and hydraulic fluids and many are known carcinogens.

Twenty-five of the 27 samples taken in Lahaina and Upper Kula came back clean, meaning no detectable levels of any volatile organic compounds were found. However, one sample in Lahaina collected from Kaniau Road detected 0.7 parts per billion of benzene, a byproduct of wildfires, according to a Department of Health news release Thursday. 

“We have a way to go before we can say it’s safe.”

John Stufflebean, Maui Water Supply Director

The maximum level of benzene allowed in a public drinking water system is 5 parts per billion, the news release said.

A water sample from the Upper Kula treatment plant detected the presence of toluene and xylenes at levels less than 0.5 parts per billion. The maximum contaminant level for toluene is 1,000 parts per billion and total xylene is 10,000 parts per billion.

Despite the encouraging first results, Stuffebean said sampling is ongoing and will be broadened to include a wider range of contaminants and different locations.

“We have a way to go before we can say it’s safe” or that the water advisories will be lifted, he added.

Maui County hosted a public meeting at the Kula Community Center to answer concerns about the water system in Kula. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Experts from universities and other locations in the country where wildfires have contaminated public drinking water systems are advising the county.

The county is bringing in more potable water tankers for people to fill up jugs but Stuffebean advised people living in the water advisory area to have on hand enough bottled water to last at least several weeks.

Several audience members asked about what parts of Upper Kula were affected by the unsafe water advisories. No maps were displayed at the meeting.

Residents were told to check the county website where they can punch in their address to find out, or look at digital maps. Some people pointed out that not everyone has internet and that elderly people may not easily be able to find the information they’re looking for.

Stufflebean said the water department is working to beef up its communications and public outreach. Sugimura added that people can call her office and she or her staff would help them.

Kula resident Patty Mazingo said after the meeting that she’s dissatisfied by the way the county is communicating with residents about the water crisis.

“If it wasn’t for friends and family, I’d still be drinking the water,” Mazingo said.

Her internet was down or spotty for at least a week after the fire so she wasn’t about to check the county website for any advisories. Mazingo said the county should have sent written notices in the mail, noting that water bills come via the U.S. Postal Service.

“In a modern world, this is not hard to figure out,” she said.

State, county and federal officials were on hand Thursday evening for the meeting in Kula. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

At one point in the meeting, several people interrupted Stufflebean and shouted that they had felt sick after drinking the water before becoming aware of the unsafe water advisory.

He advised them to consult their physicians since the water supply department has no expertise in public health.

As far as watering plants, Stufflebean said that’s probably okay to do. But when it comes to giving pets or livestock water from the public drinking water system in the affected area, the jury is out.

“There’s not a lot of science on it,” he said.

Lorraine Zane said she’s been hauling 5-gallon jugs of potable water to her sheep because she didn’t want to give them water that was potentially contaminated.

After the meeting, Zane said she’ll probably stop doing that and just give them water from the tap.

Longtime Kula resident Marsha Kelly, a teacher at Seabury Hall, said the community has really pulled together to help one another out during the crisis. She was irritated that some audience members shouted at Stufflebean and interrupted his comments.

“The way to learn is to listen,” Kelly said.  

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

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