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Environmentalists, county concerned about runoff from Mahana Estates

By Staff | Sep 3, 2015

The county in January 2015 issued a Stop Work Order for the Mahana Estates project. The county communication noted, “We are very concerned with the drainage design and potential adverse impacts to adjacent and downstream properties, including the stream.”

KAPALUA – “Mahana Estates is the first phase of the Kapalua Mauka community, a long-planned expansion of Kapalua Resort on land mauka of the Honoapi’ilani Highway. Our goal is to create a holistic community that fosters an authentic sense of place, respects our fragile ‘aina (land), and provides a vital sustaining life experience,” the developer, Nan Inc., cites on its website (nanhawaii.com/land-development-with-nature-in mind/).

The Oahu-based development firm lists the 51-lot residential subdivision on the Internet as one of its “giving back to the community projects.”

To the contrary, unfortunately, one West Side scientist confided to the Lahaina News that the description “would be comical if it was not so tragic.”

The 124.98-acre Mahana Estates luxury subdivision is owned by SMC Mahana LLC; and, according to the State of Hawaii business registration division, its principal is Nan Chul Shin. It was purchased by the multi-national real estate development firm in 2009 and included entitlements from the State Land Use Commission, Maui County Council and Maui Planning Commission, among others.

During the lengthy permitting process in the early 2000s, Sierra Club Conservation Chair Lucienne de Naie recalled concerns were voiced “that massive grading in the project location, which included steep slopes, would increase muddy runoff downstream into Honokahua Bay and D.T. Fleming Beach Park.”

They asked, she continued, “that the development footprint be limited to avoid steep slopes, and they were told that Best Management Practices (BMPs) would be in place; therefore, near shore waters would not be impacted.”

In the Environmental Impact Statement for the project, Kapalua Mauka landowners assured the Land Use Commission: “Environmentally sensitive measures will be taken in the design and construction of Kapalua Mauka to ensure that downstream coastal resources are not degraded as a result of development. Detention and desilting basins within or adjacent to the property will maintain the existing storm water flows, and there will be no increase in runoff flowing from the development.”

The outcome, however, was the nightmare fear of the worst that could happen to the marine ecosystem.

Construction commenced in 2010 with infrastructure work, including roads, curbs, gutters, water service and sewer, drainage, electrical and telecommunications systems.

In 2013, the first of many-to-come brown-water incidents were reported.

Since then, the situation has escalated, with the flow of sediment into the bay devastating and impossible to ignore by the various county, state and federal agencies.

In January 2014, David C. Goode, Maui County director of Public Works, wrote to Reed M. Ariyoshi of Warren S. Unemori Engineering: “Recently numerous members of the public have contacted our office regarding silt being deposited into the ocean as a result of construction activity for the subject subdivision.

“Based on site inspections, a review of the plans and drainage reports, we are concerned that the drainage design for this project, specifically in the area of the green waste disposal site and nearby slopes may not be adequate.”

An understatement as the brown-water events intensified, with over 25 instances witnessed in 2014.

Kapalua resident Dana Reed partnered with county Ocean Safety Officer Tamara Paltin to gather samples, photo-document and monitor the health of the bay.

Armed with turbidity test kits, the pair of citizen science activists collected enough evidence to alarm the Clean Water Branch of the state Department of Health.

On the worst days, Reed advised, “I have had numbers as high as 2,700 NTU (Nephelometric Turbidity Unit), and the standard is 2. That’s huge; off the charts,” she exclaimed.

With her lifeguard station situated at D.T. Fleming Beach Park, Paltin has witnessed the cavalcade of runoff flow into the waters of Honokahua from the beginning.

President of the Save Honolua Coalition, Paltin reminded the community, “We first witnessed this in our area with the development at Honolua – Plantation Estates, Honolua Ridge, etc. – but at that time, all we did was complain to each other.

“Enter Robin Knox of Water Quality Consulting Inc.; she drilled it into our heads to at least report it to DOH Clean Water Branch.”

Alarmed by the frequency of the events, marine biologist Dr. Mark Deakos noted the dire consequences: “Something I think that is very important to get across that very few people understand is that once sediment is deposited on the reef, there is nothing one can do to get it off, and it gets re-suspended with each new wave event, killing coral again and again. Most people think of mud-water events like a sewage spill; it’s bad, but after a few days, it clears up. This is not true for sediment,” he said.

Robin Newbold, leader of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, noted, “Allowing sediment and green waste to contaminate the ocean (very likely with pesticides which are still in the soil, like DDT) is likely to impact tourism and the (health of the) coral and fish (population) for generations,” she warned.

With no letup, the county Department of Public Works eventually reacted in January of this year with a Stop Work Order issued to the developer, listing four Maui County Code sections in violation.

According to the county, BMPs had not been followed to the maximum practicable to prevent damage to adjacent and downstream properties by sedimentation. Drainage was handled poorly.

Site erosion and sedimentation controls were not adequate or properly maintained.

The DPW had questions about the timing of the installation of erosion control measures as well.

“The grading work,” the letter to Nan cited, “has been ongoing for many years, over the course of several winters, and the long duration of the project has contributed to the potential erosion and sedimentation hazards. The initial grading permit was issued in July 1, 2010. A project of this size should not be approaching a fifth year of construction.”

The Stop Work Order was recently lifted in late July, with revised plans and a supplemental drainage report submitted to the DPW and reviewed by a third party consultant.

Marine preservation and protection advocates were left holding their breath.

But not for long; on Aug. 18, Paltin and Reed were testing the waters again.

Deakos is incredulous: “My question for the county is who determined that no more discharge will occur if they continue work, and how are they ensuring that no more discharge occurs?”

Echoing his sentiments, de Naie is aghast. “Citizens testing the waters at D.T. Fleming Beach Park (previously named as ‘America’s Best Beach’) have found soaring turbidity levels that likely violate state health standards.”

“Best Management Practices are not enough to protect Maui’s resources,” the long-standing environmental advocate summarized.

She also asked some hard questions.

“Can education alone protect our reefs and the irreplaceable biological services they offer? What part should agency enforcement play, and who has the authority to hold landowners accountable to minimize harm to public trust resources?”

(Next week, the answer to these queries and more.)