Testifiers lauded the idea, but the working group’s draft recommendations will require additional funding.

In its draft report, the state House’s interim Environmental Remediation Working Group says more money is needed not just to keep sampling and monitoring the air, land and water around Lahaina after the Aug. 8 fire, but also to restore the natural wetlands that once thrived there.

It’s not clear yet where those dollars would come from, or how much might ultimately be spent on that West Maui cleanup and restoration.

Nonetheless, testifiers voiced strong support Friday for the recommendations in that working group’s draft report.

“For us, the tragedies on Maui give renewed intention and purpose to the critical yet chronically underfunded work at the Department of Land and Natural Resources” – and the local groups that partner with that cash-strapped agency, Eric Co, vice president of resiliency at the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, told members of the working group.

Members of the public and those representing various agencies appeared before the Working Group responsible for Environmental Remediation during a hearing. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“We feel a resilient environment will be the work of a resilient community. But it will start with a resilient funding,” Co said.

In the near term, the House’s draft report lays out some $2.5 million needed for DLNR, the University of Hawaii and the community group Hui O Ka Wai Ola to conduct water quality sampling and see how marine life might be affected by contamination runoff in the shores just off Maui. 

It further includes a “conservative” table with a cost of nearly $4.4 million for the state’s Department of Health to monitor air quality in the area over six months at 10 stations.

“Additional funding resources” will be needed “for long-term monitoring of air and water quality, as well as support for research efforts to better understand the environmental concerns linked to urban fires,” the draft says. 

The Aug. 8 fire destroyed much of the seaside town, killing at least 100 people and leveling entire blocks.

Those findings, and the findings of five other such working groups formed in the wake of the Lahaina fires, are expected to be hashed out and discussed during next year’s Legislative session. A final report is due Dec. 15.

Anthony Ching testified that the state must “significantly” increase funding if it’s to accomplish the necessary environmental remediation at Lahaina and ultimately restore the wetlands there. He suggested using a visitor-impact fee.

Ching is the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii’s director of external affairs, and he said he was testifying on behalf of a coalition that also included the Trust for Public Land, Resources Legacy Fund and Kupu.

For several years, the Legislature had considered creating such a visitor fee, or “green fee,” to better cover those visitors’ impact on Hawaii’s natural resources. 

In recent years, that legislation has died behind closed doors in the legislators’ conference sessions.

Destiny Apilado, a Native Hawaiian from Mililani, lauded the working group’s recommendation to eventually restore Lahaina’s wetlands and suggested that effort use a “bio-cultural approach,” where the community would be involved and restore its “deep-rooted” connections to those lands.

Restoring the wetlands there would cost money, but Hawaii would see returns on that investment with a healthier and more resilient local environment, Apilado added.

Lahaina fire - DAR Harbor Water Testing, Sept. 8, 2023, photographs. (Courtesy of the DLNR)
Employees with DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources conduct water testing in the waters off Lahaina in September. (Courtesy DLNR/2023)

The draft report mentions that Olowalu, the community near Lahaina, has been proposed as a removal site for debris from Lahaina, but that controversial proposal wasn’t discussed at Friday’s hearing.

After the hearing, the chair of the group Nicole Lowen, who also chairs the House’s Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, said she would like to see the state eventually create an environmental division similar to Washington state’s Department of Ecology.

Most states have such environmental departments, Lowen said, and creating one would take some strain off of DLNR and DOH. Those two agencies shoulder many other responsibilities not directly related to the environment, she added.

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

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