The county will consider other areas on island as the county reaches a “pivotal point in a very controversial issue.”

Olowalu will not be used as a final dump site for all the ash and debris being cleaned up from the Aug. 8 fires in Lahaina, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen announced Thursday.

But the rural area eight miles south of Lahaina can be used to temporarily hold the estimated 400,000 tons of fire waste until a permanent site is selected, he said, noting that the Central Maui landfill in Puunene is under consideration.

The massive volume of Lahaina fire waste that requires containment is the size of nearly five football fields stacked five stories, according to the mayor.

The proposed landfill site in Olowalu for debris from the Aug. 8 fires in Lahaina. (Courtesy: Google Earth)
The proposed landfill site in Olowalu for debris from the Aug. 8 fires in Lahaina. (Courtesy: Google Earth)

Speaking at a Maui County Council committee meeting on Thursday, Bissen said he carefully listened to engineers, environmental experts and the community in making his decision.

In emotional remarks before the Disaster, Resilience, International Affairs and Planning Committee, Bissen said the nearly 12,000 residents who were displaced by the fire were at the forefront of his decision-making.

“My highest priority remains helping you return to your parcels to begin in the process of rebuilding your lives,” Bissen said.

The county has reached a “pivotal point in a very controversial issue,” he said, regarding removing the debris from Lahaina town.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen announced Thursday that Olowalu will not be the final site to store all the ash and debris from the Lahaina fire. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“This is the most urgent issue we are facing right now in an effort to return our survivors to their property as well as a safe way to handle this debris and every day we delay this process is one more day survivors must put their lives on hold,” Bissen said.

If the Central Maui landfill is ultimately chosen for permanent containment of the fire waste, the process of transporting it 26 miles from Lahaina will pose significant traffic and safety concerns, he noted.

It will entail up to 40,000 semi-truck loads hauling the debris down narrow, windy Honoapiilani Highway, which hugs the coast and is often battered by high surf and storm surge. That amount of truck traffic breaks down to about 133 semis traveling daily down the two-lane highway.

It’ll take about a year-and-a-half to haul all the waste to any final dump site, exposing the community to “unprecedented impacts,” namely traffic, possible debris spills, and collisions with passenger vehicles, according to the mayor.

But after weighing the pros and cons of keeping all the waste at Olowalu versus shipping it somewhere else, it made sense to rule out the seaside community as a permanent disposal site, according to the mayor.

The location is close to the ocean and many members of the public who testified in person or submitted written comments expressed concerns that pollution from the fire debris, which contains heavy metals, pesticides, asbestos, arsenic and other toxins, could leach into the groundwater and seep into the sensitive nearshore environment and its world-class coral reef system.

Honoapiilani Highway runs by Olowalu in West Maui. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Honoapiilani Highway runs by Olowalu in West Maui. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Some members of the public suggested at a committee meeting earlier this week that the waste could be stored temporarily in shipping containers rather than being buried in the ground.

But that option, discussed on Thursday, was ruled out as impractical because of cost and logistics.

Bob Fenton, Region 9 administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it would take approximately 12,121 shipping containers that would need to be stored on about 100 acres of flat land.

It would cost approximately $100 million alone to acquire that many containers.

“It not really an operationally executable option that would work,” Fenton said.

FEMA’s Bob Fenton gives a press conference Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Wailuku. Federal, state and county governments gave updates on progress after the Aug. 8 fire which destroyed Lahaina town and Kula area. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
FEMA’s Bob Fenton ruled out storing the debris in shipping containers. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Mark Wingate, FEMA debris task force leader, noted that harbor infrastructure in Kahului isn’t set up to handle that amount of shipping containers, and bringing thousands of containers to the island would interfere with regular delivery of supplies and goods to Maui.

“It’s just not logistically feasible,” Wingate said.

Upcountry Council member Yuki Lei Sugimura asked how long it will take to design and build a final storage site for the waste and who will pay.

Office of Recovery Director Josiah Nishita said it’ll take about 11 to 12 months, depending on which site is chosen and who owns the land. When Olowalu was under consideration as a permanent dump site, the estimated cost was around $60 million.

The county would bear the cost of constructing a final disposal site, while FEMA would contribute what are called “tipping fees,” or money that is paid to dump waste based on weight.

Josiah Nishita, who heads Maui County's newly established Office of Recovery, discussed a framework for recovery from the August 2023 wildfires during a breakout session Wednesday (11/15/2023) at the 22nd Annual Native Hawaiian Conference in Kahului. (Christie Wilson/2023)
Josiah Nishita heads Maui County’s newly established Office of Recovery. (Christie Wilson/2023)

Bissen said it’s impossible at this point to estimate the final cost because it’ll depend on the location, land ownership, topography and many factors.

But he urged the council to act with a sense of urgency.

He wants approval for a right of entry for using Olowalu as a temporary disposal site when the legislative body meets on Jan. 12 for a second and final reading of Bill 120. The legislation would allow FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and contractors to proceed with building the temporary landfill at Olowalu.

“Every day as the challenges press on, the people of Lahaina, our own people, are leaving this island,” Bissen said, his voice catching.

After a brief pause, he continued.

“We must unite around this shared urgency of returning survivors to their parcels while keeping everyone safe and allowing them to start the long road of rebuilding their lives,” he said. “This is and will remain my primary focus moving forward until every survivor has found their way home.”

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

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