Scientists scramble to better understand scope of toxic sludge in Lahaina Harbor

There's a toxic sludge at the bottom of Lahaina Harbor and scientists are worried it'll get worse with the first heavy rain.
Published: Sep. 15, 2023 at 4:20 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 15, 2023 at 5:21 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In the wake of the Maui wildfires, there’s toxic sludge at the bottom of Lahaina Harbor and scientists are worried it will get worse with the first heavy rain.

They’re using specialized equipment to monitor the water quality.

Experts are worried about a slew of contaminants in the water, including fuel, dioxins, PCBs and forever chemicals — and all that sludge will eventually need to be dredged out.

Roughly 100 boats were burned during the Lahaina wildfire and in the early days, the water in Lahaina Harbor appeared black.

“First seeing the harbor was utterly devastating and completely disorienting,” said Tova Callendar, of the West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires Disaster

Five weeks later, scientists say the water looks clearer but there’s an oil slick.

“The water quality inside the harbor is horrible. You can see it on the surface,” said Russell Sparks, aquatic biologist with the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources.

“There’s a constant sheen of diesel and other pollutants.”

Researchers used specialized U.S. Geological Survey equipment with clamps to go 20 feet down. Scientists pulled up a toxic mix of ash, fiberglass and chunks of debris.

“I think the concern is understanding the chemical cocktail,” said Callendar.

She worked with DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources and has been testing the water every week for three weeks.

“We actually couldn’t get traction with the clamps because there was so much debris that came up with it. We couldn’t get a full sample size,” said Callendar.

“We tried multiple times to pull it up because it was just so full of material,” she added.

Callendar says there was so much petroleum in the water, they were worried their instruments could get contaminated.

She says she’s never seen so much pollution and that’s why scientists want to know the exact toxins in the water so they can study its impact to the ocean.

Scientists say they’re getting help from experts who responded to 9/11 and the California wildfires.

So far, there’s no timeline for clean-up by a multi-agency group.