Printed at the bottom of every piece of Maui County Department of Water Supply stationery are the words “By Water All Things Find Life.” It’s a fitting, if somewhat awkwardly worded, motto for the county agency tasked with making sure all residents have ready access to potable water.
Doing so requires a complex network of pipes, pumps, trucks and wells connecting aquifers, streams and storage tanks throughout the island. Of course, not all of it is functioning at any given moment—some wells, for instance, have rarely been tapped because of subsurface contamination. These wells do not bring life to anything.
Two of these wells are on the Westside, and they concern us today. They lie at the heart of a problem facing some of the island’s biggest proposed land developments.
On Jan. 19, Maui Land & Pineapple Co. people interested in buying a home on the Westside gathered at the Ritz Carlton in Kapalua for a briefing on the company’s proposed 300-acre Pulelehua development. The project has the potential to be another West Maui town on the order of Honokowai or Kahana.
Most of the people attending the Ritz Carlton meeting wanted to hear more about the company’s plans, according to repeated statements from Maui Land Executive Vice President Bob McNatt, to put 125 “permanently affordable” rentals and 325 affordable homes “priced from approximately $190,000 to $360,000 in today’s dollars.” As company employees, they get first crack at the homes, when they come on line sometime in 2008.
At some point in the near future, both the homebuilders and buyers will have to contend with a chemical called DBCP. Known as 1,2 Dibromo-3-Chloropropane to its closest friends, DBCP is nasty stuff, especially for males. The EPA considers it a “probable human carcinogen.”
“Acute (short-term) exposure to DBCP in humans results in moderate depression of the central nervous system (CNS) and pulmonary congestion from inhalation, and gastrointestinal distress and pulmonary edema from oral exposure,” states an EPA fact sheet on DBCP. “Chronic (long-term) exposure to DBCP in humans causes male reproductive effects, such as decreased sperm counts. Testicular effects and decreased sperm counts were observed in animals chronically exposed to DBCP by inhalation.”
At least two West Maui wells are contaminated with so much DBCP that they’re no longer in use. Growers like the Maui Land & Pineapple Co. apparently used the stuff with abandon in Hawai’i during the later half of the 20th century.
“Until 1977, DBCP was used as a soil fumigant and nematocide [worm killer] on over 40 different crops in the United States,” states the EPA fact sheet. “From 1977 to 1979, EPA suspended registration for all DBCP-containing products except for use on pineapples in Hawaii. In 1985, EPA issued an intent to cancel all registrations for DBCP, including use on pineapples.”
That’s right: pineapple growers in Hawai’i sprayed DBCP for eight full years after it was banned for use on the mainland. It made sense, since chemists developed DBCP in the 1950s for Hawaiian pineapple crops.
It took a couple decades, but contamination finally appeared in California wells. By 1979, Maui Land & Pineapple—one of the state’s biggest DBCP fans—began its own tests. In June of that year, they hired the late hydrologist John Mink—husband of former Congresswoman Patsy Mink. His tests showed the dreaded poison in five of 10 test sites.
In Hawai’i today, the maximum allowed contaminant level is 0.04 parts per billion. According to a June, 1996 Environment Hawai’i report, Mink found significantly more than that. In fact, the lowest contaminant level he found was 0.26 parts per billion, which occurred at a test site in Honolua. On the other side of the island at Pauwela, Mink found 2.23 parts per billion.
Significant levels, certainly, but remember that Mink ran his tests back in 1979. DCBP was still perfectly legal for Maui Land to spray, and spray they did, making sure not to advertise Mink’s data. Indeed, a June 21, 1979 Honolulu Star-Bulletin story—quoted in the Environment Hawai’i insisted that “Federal inspectors have found no traces” of DBCP in their tests.
It was only in 1985 when the EPA finally ordered Maui Land to end DBCP use, even though the company was requesting permission to use up not only the rest of its pesticide stocks, but also any remaining on the mainland.
Until February 1992, DBCP on Maui only appeared in test sites. That changed when it started showing up—at nearly 10 times the state limit—in a Napili well. Then it appeared in a nearby well used by Amfac for Ka’anapali. For two years, county health officials tried treating the water. Then in 1994 the state ordered that the county stop using the Napili well (Ka’anapali continues to aerate its well to this day).
On May 3, 1996, the County of Maui sued a host of chemical companies—Dow, Shell Oil, Brewer Environmental Industries, Occidental and Amvac—as well as Maui Land & Pineapple, asking that they pay to clean up the DBCP mess. Municipal litigation on DBCP began in the 1980s, with all sorts of cities and counties suing the same list of chemical companies.
Like most such lawsuits, the matter settled out of court. On the last day of August, 1999, the companies agreed to pay Maui County $3 million in “tort damages” as well as “certain sums” to install carbon filtration systems on future wells until Sept. 1, 2039.
The settlement sounds like a good deal, except that in the 1990s other cities got lots more money from their litigation: $25 million here, $16.25 million plus another $6 million to $10 million in treatment costs there. The city of Fresno, California scored $70 million in damages and treatment contracts.
That was then. What about now? Homes for Pulelehua will start going up in a couple years. Maui Land & Pineapple’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project includes vague promises that potable water supplies exist for the development. Others aren’t so sure.
“The EIS does not include analysis of water for DBCP and other nematode pesticides,” insists the slow-growth citizens’ group Maui Tomorrow in its written comments on Pulelehua. “DBCP has reportedly been found in other area wells. If such pollution is found, how will Pulelehua provide a safe water supply?”
The Sierra Club’s Pulelehua comments, submitted by Maui Chapter President Lance Holter, are just as succinct. “Two of the 5 county wells in the Honolua aquifer (Napili A and Honokua A) are contaminated with DCBP and have rarely been used over the past decade,” Holter wrote. “The other 3 county wells have been pumped at an average rate about 1.5 MGD [million gallons per day], but as pumping has increased, chloride levels have risen as high as 200 ppm [parts per million].”
Holter also dryly noted that the contaminated Napili A well is the closest potential water source to Pulelehua. MTW