HONOLULU (KHON2) — Experts said the clock is ticking to seal the toxic ash in Lahaina from becoming airborne.
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Short term safety measures were immediately put in place, like dust screens and ‘socks’ over storm drains, but some experts said any future rain can have a devastating affect.
Roughly 100 homes have been given the all clear for residents to return and see their properties. Officials estimate at least 2,000 structures were destroyed in the fire.
“We’ve been lucky, not having rain hit Lahaina,” explained John Starmer, chief scientist of Maui Nui Marine Resource Council. “But when it does hit Lahaina, what we’re going to have is sort of very, very fine sediment and ash will go through most of those barriers and end up in the ocean.”
He said ash can easily become airborne from the wind. “And once you have water mixing with ash, you’re also then extracting some of the toxins that get dissolved in the water,” he added.
He said the toxins can seep into the soil and storm drains which flow to the ocean, and winds can whip the ash up into homes that survived the fires, or into the ocean.
“Some of the heavier things in the ash might settle out, they might kind of stick around for a long time in the water or in the sediment around Lahaina, some of it will most certainly get blown off shore by the strong currents that are typically around there,” he continued. “But if you get the stuff out in the environment during you know, lower flow times, even light ashes will eventually settle out at some point.”
The ash is already impacting certain areas. In mid-September, officials shut down Polo Beach in Wailea due to a possible hazardous material.
“We happened to figure out that it was an algal bloom, a single celled algae, and it’s known that ash has iron and phosphates in it which simply acts as fertilizer, there’s not a lot of this naturally in the environment. It basically acts as fertilizers to these little algae which can grow very, very fast,” Starmer explained.
He said it’s not a bad thing because algae produce oxygen, but he said when there are big blooms all of a sudden, they can start dying at the same time too.
“And when they die and start to rot, all of a sudden bacteria are feeding off of the decaying plankton and you start losing oxygen, and in places you can know if it’s extreme enough, you basically end up with fish kills, right, there’s not enough oxygen in the water, kind of like people, fish, corals, all the little living things in the ocean need oxygen. So that can be the direct harmful thing,” he continued. “Some types of algae can be harmful because they’ve got toxins in them.”
Other than it being an issue of getting into the ocean and getting into the food chain, he said the bigger issue is a human health issue.
“I did work in in Sapin, where we were able to take heavy metals and basically locate old military dumps up in the jungle. Because this stuff was leaching out of, you know, burn fields and stuff like that. And this was 60-70 years after these dumps were active, so this stuff gets out into the environment and it tends to be persistent. Heavy metals are particularly problematic. But there’s this, you know, we don’t know what’s in the ash,” Starmer said.
The EPA said Mayor Bissen requested they find a solution to ensure the health and safety of the community.
The EPA went with Soiltac, which is a clear non-toxic soil stabilizer that is typically used at construction sites and farms to prevent ash from spreading. The spray was used at several homes in Kula and essentially keeps the ash down and is also water resistant.
Maui County councilwoman for Upcountry Maui Yuki Lei Sugimura was at a demonstration of Soiltac at one of the residents’ homes that burned on Aug. 8.
“It’s like a clear glue adhesive and it only goes on the property site where the house was,” explained Sugimura.
The EPA said uncontrolled ash can negatively affect humans and enter food chains.
Experts say the clock is ticking to seal the thousands of homes in Lahaina, and say the ash is much more toxic than the spray. And residents in Kula who had it applied to their property said they did it so their neighbors who’s homes did not burn next door would be safe.
“The ash contains everything from asbestos to pesticides to you know, hydrocarbons, none of it is going to be good for you long term,” Starmer said.
“Some pesticides had been identified chlordane related to termite treatments were identified in some of the properties and all of this stuff washing out, could sit around for 50-60 years,” he continued.
Some people have said they’re concerned that Soiltac hasn’t publicly revealed its formula.
However, the company said it’s formula is a trade secret and doesn’t use UV resistant additives, and does not degrade into microplastics as some people have claimed.
Soiltac said they’ve been used in various Hawaii projects in the last two decades.
Maui Council’s Agriculture and Environmental committee will discuss Soiltac and other environmental issues surrounding the wildfire aftermath at 9 AM on Tuesday.
Mayor Bissen’s Communications Director said in text on Monday afternoon, “As we take steps forward, the health and safety of our community and environment are critical. We will take EPA’s key approval into consideration to help address hazardous conditions that can affect air quality and coastal waters.”
FEMA and the EPA said air quality monitors have been set up throughout Lahaina, especially near the schools and so far numbers have been low. They will continue to monitor the conditions.