Health officials scramble to fix forgotten toxic dump in Kalihi

Updated: Mar. 14, 2017 at 9:30 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

KALIHI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Just 3 inches below the asphalt on Factory Street in Kalihi lies a toxic dump that — until last summer — the government had forgotten about.

Health officials say as long as it stays covered, it's not likely to hurt you. But therein lies the problem.

After years of neglect, parts of of the Kalihi roadway are crumbling away, years of rain and rigorous use taking their toll.

If repairs aren't completed soon, dangerous neurotoxins could be exposed in the mostly residential neighborhood.

The dirt in a typical Hawaii backyard, the state says, contains about 200 milligrams of lead per kilogram of soil. The concentration is slightly higher in more urban areas, Kalihi among them.

But recent tests revealed something startling: Concentrations of more than 10,000 mg/kg under Factory Street and its accompanying shoulder lane — more than 50 times the usual amount of lead in the soil.

Alan Twu bought a property near the intersection of Factory Street and Waterhouse nearly a decade ago. Shortly after opening HK Construction, he leveled part of the lot to make more space for parking.

"When we first purchased the building, this was kind of just a grass area," Twu said.

No one, he says, ever told him the soil was laced with lead. And Twu says he never took any extra precautions while digging in the contaminated dirt.

"I think just general knowledge, somebody notifying us, would be important," Twu said.

It's likely someone could have. The Department of Health first discovered the contaminated soil in the early 1990s, when four kids who were living in the neighborhood were diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Health officials believe the ground was polluted decades ago by a company that manufactured lead fishing weights. An emergency order was issued to remove the worst of it, then cover up what was left with a layer of asphalt.

But a 1993 map obtained by Hawaii News Now shows that even after the clean-up efforts, soil contamination was still present. Some of it extended across North King Street to Kopke and Puuhale streets.

"Most of the areas were already paved. There were some areas that weren't, and those were dug up and capped," said Fenix Grange, the environmental management program manager for the Department of Health's Hazard Evaluation Emergency Response Office.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advised the city and the state to set up an official arrangement, one that would maintain Factory Street and its shoulder and make sure no one unknowingly dug into it.

But that didn't happen.

"There is nothing in our records since that time, until we began this investigation earlier in 2016, to show that any of that happened," said Grange.

After the lead scandal in Flint, Mich., Hawaii health officials started looking into old contamination sites.

That's when they discovered that the Factory Street site was rapidly deteriorating.

In one letter, state officials told the city that "in its current state, it poses a potential threat to human health and the environment."

Grange said the risk for lead contamination as it pertains to human health is generally to toddlers and babies, who can inadvertently ingest lead soil.

"If it's not in a child's yard, or if it's not in a place they're playing regularly, it doesn't really pose a risk," said Grange.

Environmental advocate Carroll Cox says the government failed the neighborhood, which he feels is still at risk.

"There should be major concern because it's residential," Cox told Hawaii News Now. "It seems like someone abandoned the responsibility. It's inexcusable."

A major project to replace an aging water main in the neighborhood was also stopped because of contamination concerns. Officials say construction could now be on hold for two to three more years.

Hawaii News Now also asked the Board of Water Supply when the last time water in the area was tested. That question was never answered, though officials did tell us it was safe to drink.

City officials refused a request from Hawaii News Now to be interviewed for this story, but said they are making arrangements to pave Factory Street as quickly as as possible.

In the meantime, Twu plans to take his son to get tested for lead poisoning.

"As a young kid he used to come out here and pick up rocks, whatever he could find," Twu said.

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