Matthew Leonard: A Kula Resident Digs Into Data To Make Sense Of Water Testing - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Matthew Leonard

Matthew Leonard is the data editor for Civil Beat and has worked in media and cultural organizations in both hemispheres since 1988. Follow him on Twitter at @mleonardmedia or email

Update: The Unsafe Water Advisory Was Lifted For Most Of Upper Kula Late Tuesday.

Editor’s note: Today we’re launching Matthew Leonard’s new column that will use public data to explore important issues and promote accountability and transparency. Matthew is Civil Beat’s data editor and he’s been particularly interested in data that’s available for the Maui wildfires. In the first of these regular columns, he brings us a story about data that has become important to the residents of Upcountry Maui.

Kula resident Melissa Kaufman used her Labor Day long weekend to do some reading.

Rather than kicking back with a beach book or reading “Charlotte’s Web” with her first-grader, Kaufman binged on the water sample reports posted by Maui County for areas impacted by the Upper Kula and Olinda wildfires.

If that wasn’t enough, she then organized the results into a spreadsheet that is now being shared through the Coconut Wireless and on social media, providing information that Kaufman says residents desperately want.

“I’m the mother of a 6-year-old boy. I’m very conservative when it comes to issues like water contamination. So it was really important to me to understand what was going on with the water for my own family,” she said.

Upcountry Maui residents have been under an Unsafe Water Advisory since Aug. 11 and concerns over water testing were raised at a community meeting Aug. 28 and on social media. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Lahaina and Upper Kula have been under an Unsafe Water Advisory since Aug. 11 and the county has regularly issued the results of water samples tested for contamination, but most people wouldn’t know how to interpret the results being posted, she said.

Kaufman, who has a background in tech and now teaches entrepreneurship at high school and college level, also wanted to reduce the anxiety she was feeling in the community. “Some people are afraid to wash their hands with the tap water. I see others online attributing every malady or malaise to the water.”

The spreadsheet she put together added context about the EPA safety guidelines for the three volatile organic compounds, benzene, toluene and xylene, that were showing up in the county reports that could pose health risks if found in sufficient concentrations.

“For the data they’ve provided, I’m not seeing anything concerning,” she said.

Eleven of the 58 Kula-Olinda reports showed traces of the VOCs, but none exceeded the EPA limits, she found.

The highest reading for benzene was .72 micrograms per liter. The EPA’s limit is 5 micrograms per liter. For comparison, Kaufman said that water tests after the Camp Fire in California found benzene levels more than 400 times the EPA limits.

“Now the things I don’t know are, how much testing should be done and how long should we be testing for?” she said.

Kula resident Melissa Kaufman created a spreadsheet of water tests for areas in Upcountry Maui to help residents understand the results. (Provided: Melissa Kaufman)

Looking for answers, Kaufman had an authority on water contamination help her translate the county reports and cast an eye over her findings.

“I have people calling and emailing me from 4,500 miles away asking these questions,” said Professor Andrew Whelton of Purdue University, who advised on water supply recovery after the Red Hill fuel leak and major wildfires on the mainland.

He said Kaufman’s spreadsheet was helpful because it put all the county results into one place.

They show additional benzene contamination in Lahaina as expected, Whelton said, but that none of the detections so far in any of the water systems exceed safety guidelines.

Whelton is familiar with local concerns after he and a colleague spent 10 days in Maui in mid-August providing advice to the county on testing as well as meeting local residents. The pace of water testing in the advisory area has picked up since he was on the ground, Whelton said.

Director of the Department of Water Supply John Stufflebean said Tuesday that the department is currently doing 30 to 40 samples per day and that the Unsafe Water Advisory could be lifted in some parts of Upcountry later this week if results continue to be satisfactory.

Stufflebean said that lifting the advisory for the area around fire-damaged homes was likely several weeks away. Two rounds of testing plus a final round of clearance testing are required and there is a one-week gap between results from each round, he said.

“Once they test the water in and around the destroyed homes,” Whelton said, “as well as the pipe that transfers water from the top to the bottom of the water system, and they do that a couple of times, then they would be able to understand if there’s any contamination still moving around in the system.”

Purdue University Professor Andrew Whelton PhD speaks to media at an unoccupied military house located at 4171 Finch Street. Whelton is a professor in Civil, Environmental Ecological Engineering. December 14, 2021
Andrew Whelton, an expert on water contamination, warns that commercial testing labs may not screen for enough toxic chemicals if customers don’t know what to ask for. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

When Whelton first arrived Maui County was testing for up to 23 of the VOCs the state was asking it to test for, he said. On his advice, the county changed to start testing for 55 chemicals. “Sometimes it takes utilities a month or two before they figure out how to do the testing the right way. Maui County was able to figure it out faster.”

Whelton strongly advises residents getting their water tested privately to check that the labs are screening for enough VOCs, he said.

During meetings with households on Maui, Whelton found out “that commercial laboratories are testing people’s water and charging them 200 to 250 bucks without looking for all the chemicals they need to look for.”

This was something that he’d seen in the aftermath of other wildfires in California and Oregon. “People are trying to test and get control of their lives. But they don’t have the information needed to get the lab to test correctly, and the laboratory may be oblivious to what they actually have to do to help people.”

Whelton has produced a guide on what compounds laboratories need to test for, as well as a resource sheet for homeowners, well owners and public health officials.

Kaufman sees an opportunity to merge the private test results, done correctly, with what the county has been doing, because more data is always better, right?

“So if anyone is doing independent testing or if the county or independent researchers will do more sampling and provide all that data together, it would give us a helpful picture for what’s going on with the water,” she said.

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

Read this next:

Tokuda Urges Congress Not To Forget About Maui

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Matthew Leonard

Matthew Leonard is the data editor for Civil Beat and has worked in media and cultural organizations in both hemispheres since 1988. Follow him on Twitter at @mleonardmedia or email

Latest Comments (0)

Anyone interested in why there's harmful chemicals in our water and our bodies and the failure of the EPA to regulate the many harmful chemicals that are legal, one of which is the known carcinogen asbestos, can read:Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research by McGarity and Wagner

Joseppi · 1 week ago

It is nice to see a data column. Thanks.

bernie · 1 week ago

Mahalo for the very useful info from Purdue. One of the problems that Hawaii residents face is finding a lab to do private testing. A list of such labs would be quite helpful.There is also the problem of properly collecting samples, shipping and chain of custody. It would be good to have a broadly written piece to elaborate these necessary steps.

hellyj · 1 week ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.