Hawaii Agrees to Hand over Site to Maui County for Wildfire Landfill and Memorial

Fire damage is shown in the Wahikuli Terrace neighborhood in the fire ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 15, 2023.

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii’s land board has approved handing over state land on Maui to be used for a wildfire memorial and fire debris disposal, but officials urged Maui County to talk further with the community after some raised concerns about how the proposed landfill would affect nearby coral reefs and historic sites.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources on Friday voted to allow the county to use the parcel in Olowalu, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) south of Lahaina.

The Aug. 8 wildfire – the deadliest to hit the United States in over a century – left behind burned cars, charred beams and piles of rubble. Officials have recovered remains from at least 99 people, but believe additional human remains are mixed in with the debris.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency teams have been removing toxic items like pesticides and solar-powered batteries from the town.

The steel and concrete will mostly be recycled, said Shayne Agawa, the director of Maui’s Department of Environmental Management. Debris destined for the landfill will be mostly ash and small particles, he said.

The ash contains high levels of arsenic and lead and is now sitting outside exposed to wind or rain, creating hazards for people and pets. Removing it as soon as possible will reduce the risk to returning residents, Agawa said.

Using a landfill site near the town will also keep any people lost close to home.

“It allows the ash from Lahaina, which contains human remains, to stay in West Maui,” Agawa told the board before it voted.

Officials said the debris would be put into dumpsters lined with impermeable plastic, then wrapped up and sealed with glue. Another layer of plastic would then cover it before it’s placed in the landfill site, which would be closed and covered with grass. It would look like a park, Agawa said.

The county plans to monitor the area for the next 30 years, he said. Officials plan to install groundwater wells between the landfill and the ocean to check for potential contaminant leaks.

Several speakers said board authorities should be thinking about how the landfill would affect the environment centuries from now, in part because the landfill is just 400 yards (365 meters) from the coast.

The reef off Olowalu hosts the largest known manta ray population in the U.S. and is a primary source of coral larvae for the reefs of Lanai, Molokai and West Maui, said Scott Crawford, the Maui marine director for The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii.

He’s worried the landfill would further stress the 939-acre (380-hectare) reef, which is already under pressure from other environmental challenges, both global and local.

“I hope that we are thinking in terms of 100 or 200 years or more when the great-great-grandchildren are using this area,” Crawford told the board.

Crawford said he understood the urgency of moving quickly to find a landfill site and believes a memorial is important for the community, but urged that agencies mitigate any long-term environmental effects.

Another testifier expressed surprise that the county didn’t consult the State Historic Preservation Division, which protects historic sites around Hawaii.

The county said it plans to hold open houses to talk to the public about what the landfill site would look like. Spokesperson Mahina Martin told the board the county has done some outreach but needs to do more.

The Olowalu location is next to an older landfill that is now closed. The county said it wouldn’t be used for any other trash, just wildfire debris from Lahaina as well as Kula and Olinda, two other communities struck by wildfires in early August.

Maui’s existing landfill is 25 miles (40 kilometers) away from Lahaina and sending the debris there would add to the burden on an already busy two-lane highway and generate more emissions from truck traffic, the county said.