Tanked at Tunnels

LIHUE — Lori Stitt has made daily visits to Makua Beach since moving to Haena two months ago and said she rarely encounters ocean debris along that stretch of the North Shore.

“The ocean currents usually drop the marine debris on the east shores of Kauai but not generally on the north,” said Stitt, who has lived on Kauai for the past 16 years and serves as a Surfrider Foundation executive board member. “It’s really unusual to find marine debris on the North Shore except at Rock Quarry Beach in Kilauea — a lot of plastics float in there, but generally not in Hanalei or up north.”

It came as a surprise then on Friday morning, when Stitt and her boyfriend found a rusted, 4-foot-long propane gas tank near the shoreline at Makua Beach, which is sometimes called Tunnels Beach. The discovery came a day after another 15-foot-long propane tank was found by two other Surfrider Foundation members near Larsen’s Beach, also known as Ka’aka’aniu Beach, in Kilauea. 

“We had that big storm a week before on Tuesday when the Hanalei Bridge was closed for a day and night, and I think it was that storm that brought in a lot of the heavier marine debris, like the tanks, and dropped them on the North Shore,” Stitt said. 

After her boyfriend pushed the partially full gas tank past the shoreline so it wouldn’t get washed back out to sea, Stitt said she reported to the incident to the Kauai Fire Department. 

County spokeswoman Sarah Blane confirmed that firefighters from the Hanalei fire station responded that day “to a report of a tank that apparently washed ashore near Limahuli.” 

“After it was determined that there was no immediate risk to health or safety, firefighters taped off the area and notified the state Department of Health,” Blane wrote in an email.

Adam Teekell, an environmental health specialist with the state Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office in Honolulu, said state Department of Health contractors inspected the two propane tanks on Sunday morning and removed them later that day.

He also confirmed that the rusted tank found by Stitt and her boyfriend near Makua Beach was partially filled with propane. The other tank found near Larsen’s Beach, meanwhile, was empty and only filled with sea water. 

“When we found it, I could smell the additives that they add to the propane tank so you know when they’re leaking,” Stitt said. 

County fire officials, Teekell said, chose not to close Makua Beach after determining that the amount of propane emanating from the tank did not pose a public health hazard.

“I was only concerned that it took two days (to respond) because of the amount of tourists,” Stitt said. “Specifically, right there near Tunnels Beach, we have a very high occupancy on the island right now, so the tourists were laying out all around it on Saturday. At that point, we weren’t sure it was hazardous or not and it was sitting out in the sunshine, which was not a good thing.” 

Though it is common for more marine debris to wash ashore during the state’s winter season because of heavier rain events and tidal currents, the discovery of the two propane tanks around the same time was unusual, Teekell said. 

State and county officials, however, say it is unlikely that either propane tank is from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that has caused some marine debris to wash up on Hawaii beaches.  

“It is not uncommon for debris to wash ashore after a period of heavy rains,” Blane wrote in an email. “There is no evidence that this tank is Japan tsunami debris.” 

Still, Stitt said her unexpected find reinforces the need for residents to be vigilant. 

“We want to bring awareness to everybody so they realize that this is happening on the island,” Stitt said. “It’s really up to all of us to pick it up and do our share.”


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