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Warning signs

MAHAULEPU — Federal environmental officials are strong-arming the state into posting warning signs advising poor water quality at Mahaulepu and Gillin’s Beaches.

The demand is detailed in a letter sent from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the Clean Water Branch, Environmental Management Division of the Hawaii Department of Health on July 25.

Janice Okubo, DOH spokeswoman, said the entity is “seeking clarification from EPA on their concerns and will be in discussion on the issues raised.”

Water experts and members of environmental conservation groups on Kauai are hailing it as a victory.

“I feel like we’ve been vindicated,” said Bridget Hammerquist, president of Friends of Mahaulepu, who was involved in the original testing that showed the high presence of the bacteria at the mouth of Mahaulepu’s Waiopili Stream.

Because of their concern with the water quality, Friends of Mahaulepu took it upon themselves in early May to post signs warning beachgoers the water quality in the stream and surrounding areas wasn’t up to federal standards.

The signs were taken down four hours after they were placed.

“We did do the right thing,” Hammerquist said. “We weren’t wrong.”

Robert Zelkovsky, spokesman for Kauai’s Surfrider Chapter whose Blue Water Task Force did the initial sampling at the stream, said he thinks it’s been a long time coming.

“It’s been two years of consistent results and testing,” Zelkovsky said. “We’re glad the EPA has stepped in and put their foot down.”

He dubbed the problem “a pressing public health issue.”

Hammerquist agreed and said she’s happy to see the EPA mandating signage.

“In order to protect public health, Hawaii DOH must post a sign informing the public that the water flowing across the beach does not meet Hawaii’s recreational water quality standards,” the letter says. “In addition to posting signs, EPA strongly advises Hawaii DOH to immediately implement public health protection measures, such as limiting access and conducting information outreach to the general public.”

In addition to posting signs at access points and beaches when water quality standards for pathogen or pathogen indicators are not met at coastal recreation waters, the EPA is calling for further investigation.

“EPA also urges Hawaii DOH to continue its investigation of the source of the (enterococcus) bacteria,” the letter states.

Specifically, the EPA is demanding further evaluation of the former Aqua Engineers sludge/forage project site. Hawaii DOH concluded in their sanitary study that area wasn’t a source of the bacteria, which is an indication of the presence of fecal matter.

“However, this site, which was used to dispose municipal sewage sludge from 2003-2014 may continue to be a source of fecal indicator bacteria,” the letter says. “Hawaii DOH should conduct a more thorough evaluation and continue to evaluate other potential sources, such as injection wells and cesspools, from adjoining watersheds.”

Okubo said through its completion of the sanitary survey, DOH “determined a need to look into the impacts of the large number of cesspools and injection wells identified by the survey in the Poipu Koloa watershed.”

She said additional monitoring will be needed to determine the impacts on surrounding recreational waters, such as Poipu beaches.

Carl Berg, chair of Surfrider Kauai’s Blue Water Task Force, said he’s not convinced the cesspools are playing a large role.

“Having looked at the original data and discussed it with other water quality experts, I find no compelling evidence of cesspool or injection well pollution of the waters off Poipu,” he said. “This is a distraction from the serious pollution that has been ongoing at Mahaulepu.”

He added he thinks the EPA’s letter “set the record straight” and that the “DOH failed to post warning signs on Waiopili streams which Surfrider and DOH data showed to be heavily polluted with fecal bacteria, and formed a public health risk.”

“As EPA stated, it is irrelevant, at those high levels of contamination, whether the bacteria came from humans or animals,” Berg said.

The letter stems from the EPA’s review of the Mahaulepu Watershed-Waiopili Ditch Sanitary Survey, Kauai Part 1, submitted to the agency by Hawaii DOH.

In their review, the EPA noted the enterococci samples collected by Hawaii DOH exceeded the national recreational water quality standard at values 40-50 times the standard.

“The significant magnitude of water quality standards exceedance at the mouth of the Waiopili Stream and the proximity to coastal recreation waters provides a reasonable expectation that the coastal recreation waters in the area are being adversely impacted,” the letter states.

The EPA also acknowledged the Waiopili Stream mouth is used for recreational purposes by beachgoers, which was questioned by the DOH sanitary survey.

“I don’t think anyone that lives here and goes here (Mahaulepu Beach or Gillin’s Beach) has any questions that area is used for recreational activities,” Hammerquist said.

Hammerquist said Surfrider Kauai’s Blue Water Task Force sampled the water to establish a baseline in conjunction with Friends of Mahaulepu, a grassroots group formed to stop the proposed Hawaii Dairy Farms’ 557-acre dairy from setting up shop on the valley.

That’s when the two entities discovered the pollution levels.

Zelkovsky said the Blue Water Task Force has found other streams on the island as well that have bacteria levels higher than national standards, and he said Surfrider Kauai is pushing for signage to be posted in these areas as well. One of those places is Nawiliwili Stream.

“People don’t know it’s polluted because it looks so clear and beautiful,” Zelkovsky said. “I go down there and take the sample once a month and almost every time there’s people playing in that stream, or in the ocean right by the stream mouth.”

Both Hammerquist and Zelkovsky have added their voices to the EPA’s demands of posting signage as soon as possible in places where it is needed.

“They (Friends of Mahaulepu) have signs, we have formulated a sign and have offered to post them ourselves, and the state has signs,” Zelkovsky said. “They have the signage. Get it up immediately.”

The EPA letter ends with a promise of more conversations on the horizon and Okubo said DOH is seeking clarification from the agency on the concerns and requirements outlined. DOH provided no specific dates or plans for further conversations between representatives of the agencies and no timeline for posting signs.

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