Fire debris removal from Maui private properties begins

Nov. 11—The operation began at a property in Kula, and two other property owners were given 72-hour notices, according to Corps officials.

Contractors working this week for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiated their first private property debris removal on Maui in the aftermath of the Aug. 8 wildfires that destroyed most of the historic town of Lahaina and several homes in the Upcountry community of Kula.

The operation began at a property in Kula, and two other property owners were given 72-hour notices, according to Corps officials.

In a conference call Thursday with reporters, Corps officials said they had gained right-of-entry permits to clear debris at 14 homes in Kula, with more permissions pending. Cory Koger, a chemist and toxicologist working with the Corps, said that so far only one property owner has chosen to opt out, and there are two more property owners that have not been contacted "so the status is unknown."

In Lahaina, where the firestorm destroyed 2, 200 buildings, the Corps is still assessing damage at burned properties across the town. Corps spokesperson Ed Rivera said that so far they are about 50 % complete with those assessments.

Since the early days of the fire, access to burned properties has been a contentious issue. Officials have warned that the fire-scorched properties could be contaminated with toxic ash and chemicals. Lately officials have required residents and property owners to move in and out with escorts and heavy protective gear. Now as they move toward removing debris, they continue to face challenges in balancing logistical, health and environmental concerns.

In addition to moving debris to the Central Maui Landfill Refuse and Recycling Center, the Board of Land and Natural Resources has recommended that Maui County be given permission to use a former cinder quarry in Olowalu, just 5 miles from Lahaina, to store ashes and other fine debris from the disaster area of Lahaina.

Critics have raised concerns about potential effects to iwi kupuna, or burials, in the area, and the nearshore environment. Last month Scott Crawford, director of Maui marine programs for the Nature Conservancy, said, "We are concerned that adding a landfill near the ocean filled with ash and debris from the fire at Lahaina could add an additional stressor that could eventually have seriously detrimental impacts on this vital reef ecosystem."

Koger said debris being removed from Kula will be going "directly " to the central Maui Landfill and "that's the final disposal site."

"Concerns about 50 to 100 years from now really would be the same in the continental United States where we've done this in California, Oregon, New Mexico and Colorado where fire debris is put into these landfills. Those are monitored and they've never had any issue, " he said.

Some residents of fire-affected areas of Kula have complained of a lack of communication from authorities on their plans. In particular, neighbors of fire-ravaged properties don't feel like they haven't been informed of when operations will start near their homes and how it might affect them.

Mark Cardwell, an emergency management specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers, said, "We're still just communicating with the property owners." He added that in Upcountry "the residents are talking amongst one another ... they're a tight-knit group and when the property owner is notified where the debris has been removed, they're kind of going with the coconut wireless method and getting the word out to their neighbors."

Concerns about toxic ash continue to be a concern. Koger said that "we are collecting air samples ... within the ash footprint, immediately adjacent to the ash footprint, and at the nearest sensitive receptor." He said that Maui County currently prohibits removal operations when wind is 35 mph or greater.

In historic Lahaina, the Army Corps of Engineers is also preparing for archaeological assessments of destroyed properties. Koger said that the current public health emergency gives them permission to assess the rubble in terms of damage, but that they require right-of-entry permits to complete the archaeological assessments.

"We won't conduct any archaeological assessment if we don't receive a right of entry, " said Koger. "We can't go into property."