The measures aim to keep that effort going after the debris removal from the wildfires ends.

Hawaii lawmakers have advanced measures that seek to address some of the potential long-term health impacts stemming from the Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui, part of a broader response during the 2024 session to the deadly and historic disaster.

Two bills that cleared a pair of House committees on Tuesday would provide state funding to monitor the quality of Maui’s air and its coastal waters off Lahaina, helping to ensure those efforts continue after debris removal from the fires ends.

Specifically, House Bills 1839 and 1840 combined would fund an environmental health specialist to monitor the air in fire-stricken areas as well as two aquatic biologists to monitor the water. The bills would also provide money to carry out that air and water testing.

Traffic backs up going south through Lahaina on Thursday evening. The delays are due to the debris-removal work as crews clean up sites and truck it to the temporary landfill in Olowalu, Feb. 1, 2024. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)
Traffic delays on Honoapiilani Highway through Lahaina are due to the debris-removal work as crews clean up sites and truck it to the temporary landfill in Olowalu. Bills advancing in the Legislature aim to ensure that air and water quality monitoring efforts on Maui continue even after the debris is cleared. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)

The bills would also provide for further research into the effects of such wildfires on urban settings. The Lahaina wildfire is estimated to have left some 400,000 tons of waste contaminated with chemicals, heavy metals and other pollutants.

So far, no dollar amounts for those full-time positions or their monitoring work have been added to the bills’ language. The chairs of the House Energy and Environmental and Water and Land committees said Tuesday that the dollar values would be included in their committee reports, and those reports aren’t expected to be released publicly for at least several days.

However, the state Department of Health, which has been handling the post-fire air quality monitoring, said in its written testimony that it would cost more than $4 million a year to operate four Lahaina sampling stations that test for asbestos and heavy metals. Currently, the agency has about 40 “PurpleAir” sensors placed across Lahaina to monitor for small particles and pollutants in the air.

The department had announced in January that it would increase air quality monitoring to ensure that the latest phase of debris removal, led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, does not significantly impact the air quality in burn zones. Real-time data from the department’s monitors can be viewed online.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, meanwhile, said in its testimony that it would cost around $260,000 a year to keep monitoring the water and collecting data off Lahaina and to fund the two full-time aquatic biologists to carry out that work.

The state Department of Health supported HB 1839, which would fund its Maui air quality efforts. DLNR said it would support 1840, which covers the coastal water quality monitoring, as long as the measure doesn’t “adversely affect” its priorities for the fiscal year 2025 state budget.

Members of the Water and Land and Energy and Environmental Protection committees did not discuss the bills as they passed them on Tuesday, but the measures received widespread community support, including from the grassroots group Lahaina Strong.

“The wildfires have left lasting impacts on our environment, and a continued commitment to monitoring ensures that we can address emerging concerns and implement proactive measures for the well-being of our community members,” the group, which says it has 20,000 members, said in its testimony.

The bills’ next hurdle is the House Finance Committee.

Prior to this year’s session, the House’s interim Environmental Remediation Working Group found more money is needed to keep sampling and monitoring the air, land and water around Lahaina after the Aug. 8 fire.

“The proposed funding for long-term monitoring is a recognition of our enduring responsibility to
safeguard residents’ health and safety,” Lahaina resident Joanna Nakihei wrote in support of the air quality monitoring. She said she lives in one of the town’s last standing neighborhoods.

“We need our legislators to care about us. Imagine if you were living in this situation, what would you want for your family?” Nakihei wrote.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by The Healy Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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

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