HANAPEPE — The strong smell bothering Hanapepe residents for some three weeks is due to a disruption of the typical sulfur cycle in a drainage ditch, possibly caused by an accidental chemical spill, state Department of Health officials said yesterday.
“There could be many factors. We’re investigating a discharge from a company,” said Watson Okubo, Supervisor of the Monitoring and Analysis section of the DOH’s Clean Water Branch, who confirmed that company to be Kaua‘i Farm Fuel, which converts used grease and oil, provided by restaurants, into biodiesel fuel. “I’m not saying they caused it, but they might have been a factor.”
Adam Asquith of Kaua‘i Farm Fuel said the company’s grease traps had filled up and then “burped out the top” after a small rainfall, causing as much as a “couple hundred gallons” of grease, oil and washwater to enter a dry ditch behind the company, which leads to the drainage canal.
However, Asquith said that any oil or grease that made it all the way to the drainage ditch would be immediately noticeable because it would float on top of the wastewater, and instead believed that if anything, only washwater containing soap and not oil, reached the ditch.
“Trust me, we’re concerned about it too, because the odor wafts right across our facility from the canal,” Asquith said. “I think it’s a very bad coincidence.”
Okubo said a multitude of natural factors, including water turbidity, algae bloom, fish kills and decreases in oxygen levels, may have also contributed to the failure of photosynthetic bacteria to break down hydrogen sulfide gas before it reached the surface and caused the strong odor.
David Duncan, a 10-year Hanapepe resident, described the smell as a “putrid, wretched, gagging stench” and a “sulfur stink.”
The smell, however, is not believed to be dangerous.
“From our experiences in the past, it’s a nuisance problem, but it can be a very terrible nuisance problem. If there’s no wind, the odor can linger. It just hangs there,” Okubo said. “It’s not dangerous in the sense that you’re going to find people dying, but there are going to be people who are sensitized, and they’ll want to go elsewhere.”
Steve Chang and Lene Ichinotsubo of the DOH’s Solid Hazardous Waste Branch, which issued Kaua‘i Farm Fuel’s permit, said that they were in the process of conducting an investigation into the spill and exploring punishments for possible violations therein.
“Ultimately, we want to achieve regulatory compliance with the facility,” Ichinotsubo said. “We had discussions previous to this incident about measures they can take to improve their operations … housekeeping issues they can improve on.”
Asquith said that the company has already taken steps to ensure that a similar spill does not happen again.
“The trap itself is completely capped off, so that if the containment were breached, it’ll back up … so our facility would get covered with an inch of standing water with grease floating on top,” he said. “We’re being more diligent about pumping it out all the time instead of only when it gets full.”
Furthermore, the company has taken a role in cleaning up the ditch by skimming the top surface of the canal and removing dead fish and scum.
“They’ve taken some responsibility to assist in cleanup,” Chang said. “They’re taking the initiative to do so, which helps out the community.”
• Michael Levine, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org