State requesting feds’ assistance to remove arsenic, dioxin

HONOLULU — A newly released report on the chemical contamination of Kilauea properties has prompted state officials to say the soil must be removed to protect the public’s health.

The state Department of Health Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office on Friday announced the release of a comprehensive report on a state-led investigation into arsenic and dioxin soil contamination at the former Kilauea Sugar Pesticide Mixing Area, located off A‘alona and Oka streets in Kilauea.

“The report helps us determine the best way to eliminate public exposure to contaminated soil and keep Kilauea safe for children, families and visitors,” said Gary Gill, DOH Deputy Director for Environmental Health, in a news release. “The state Department of Health is working closely with the County of Kaua‘i to coordinate response activities.”

Historically, Hawai‘i sugar cane farmers such as Kilauea Sugar Plantation mixed arsenic with pesticide to manage crops. The plantation, established in 1877, produced its last harvest in 1971. The mill was demolished in the 1980s, and the land was parceled into commercial and residential subdivisions.

In late 2010 and early 2011, researchers from DOH discovered high levels of arsenic on one residential property in a Kilauea neighborhood and a nearby ditch. Slightly lower levels were found on another homeowner’s yard.

DOH announced the discovery and held a community meeting in March of 2011 to allay the public’s fears about the contamination. Community members shared concerns that the contaminated soil is more widespread than department researchers may realize, or the contamination may have spread to their own properties via rain, erosion or construction.

“We need to go deeper,” in case dirt was moved or washed off the site, Gill said at the meeting.

Members of the department’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office were to return the following month to conduct additional testing of the soil, Gill had said; but he later added, “I don’t know that we can chase every possibility. The bottom line: Don’t eat the dirt.”

Susequent laboratory testing of soil samples collected at the Kilauea site in August 2011 confirmed contamination from historic use of pesticides containing arsenic and dioxins.

Tests indicated the majority of the contamination is limited to two residential lots and one commercial property.  

To safeguard public health, DOH has either covered or fenced contaminated soil to prevent public access, according to the release, and it notified affected property owners to take extra precautions to minimize exposures, such as limiting digging and restricting playing in contaminated areas.  

Arsenic and dioxin bind with soil and can only harm people via ingestion. Children are particularly susceptible, as they are more likely to get dirt in their mouths. While arsenic clears out of the body over several days, dioxin remains in the fat.

DOH said removal of the affected soil is required to protect public health and the environment. Due to the urgency and complexity of the required clean-up, the state is requesting federal assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9 Emergency Response Program, the release states.

Meetings with the county and affected property owners are scheduled for later this month.

“I would like to thank the Department of Health for ensuring residents are thoroughly informed as the clean-up project moves forward,” said Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. in the release. “The safety and well being of our residents is our highest priority.”    

The Kilauea Pesticide Mixing Area Investigation Final Report is available online in the “What’s New” section of DOH’s website at http://hawaii.gov/health/environmental/hazard/index.html.

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