The mayor reiterated his promise to only use the location on a temporary basis.

The Maui County Council voted 6-2 on Friday to approve the Olowalu site to temporarily store an estimated 400,000 tons of debris and toxic ash from the Aug. 8 wildfire in Lahaina. 

The decision came after hours of passionate testimony from the community, mostly in favor of finding an alternate location — largely over concerns of contaminating nearshore waters.

Council member Tamara Paltin, who represents West Maui, said she hated to vote yes but did so because it is essential to remove the toxic waste before people can return home. At least 100 people died in the fire and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed, leaving over 6,000 people still displaced.

Construction crews were preparing the temporary dump site in Olowalu for the estimated 400,000 tons of debris and toxic ash from the Aug. 8 wildfire in Lahaina, Thursday. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)
Construction crews prepare the temporary dump site in Olowalu for the estimated 400,000 tons of debris and toxic ash from the Aug. 8 wildfire in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)

“My accountability is to the health and safety of the thousands of families, the reef, the ocean which connects us, including Olowalu reef,” she said.

Council members Gabe Johnson and Nohelani U’u-Hodgins voted in opposition. Council member Tasha Kama’s absence was excused.

“The reef is going to die because of this,” Johnson said, referring to the world-class coral reef system offshore.

Homes made up 86% of the roughly 2,200 structures damaged in the Aug. 8 wildfires in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Homes made up 86% of the roughly 2,200 structures damaged in the Aug. 8 wildfires in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The Environmental Protection Agency concluded more than 30 years ago that all landfills eventually leak. That’s because liners can fail and systems to collect the toxins, called leachate, can crack, collapse or otherwise malfunction. The EPA confirmed in November that this remains the agency’s position.

Council member Tom Cook, who voted in the majority, said he understands the community concerns but has faith in the Olowalu site doing its job.

“The toxicity, and the danger to the reef and the environment, is with the assumption that it’s going to be leaking and it’s going to fail and it’s going to be catastrophic,” he said. “I don’t believe that. They’re building the best possible temporary containment.”

The new landfill will be double-lined with impermeable material and engineered to prevent leakage into groundwater. The landfill will have monitoring wells and other features to detect and control any leaks.

Entrepreneur and psychologist Tom Gruber urged the council to slow down and consider alternative sites. He said many members of the public didn’t find out about Olowalu being chosen as the preferred site until the December holidays and since then thousands of people have come out in opposition to it.

“You have time to wait for whatever it takes — a few weeks, not year,” he said.

Construction crews were preparing the temporary dump site in Olowalu for the estimated 400,000 tons of debris and toxic ash from the Aug. 8 wildfire in Lahaina, Thursday. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)
The bill approved Friday by the Maui County Council authorizes an intergovernmental agreement between the county and Department of Land and Natural Resources for right-of-entry for the Olowalu site. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)

Mayor Richard Bissen promised last week to only use the site, roughly eight miles south of Lahaina, on a temporary basis while a permanent site for all the waste is determined.

He issued a statement late Friday thanking the community for bringing their concerns forward and the council for vetting the issue. 

“The Council’s vote today was a critical step in getting survivors back to their parcels and moving recovery efforts forward and will allow us to begin the debris removal process,” Bissen said. “As I promised, debris from the Olowalu Temporary Disposition Site will be removed once the permanent site is identified and built.”

Bill 120 authorizes an intergovernmental agreement between the county and Department of Land and Natural Resources for right-of-entry for the Olowalu site.

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

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