Delay, Distraction, Dissembling In Closure of Mililani Wells

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In September 1983, the residents of Mililani Town, in central O`ahu, were reeling from the news that their drinking water was a chemical cocktail whose ingredients, while dilute, might still bring on a wide range of frightening health problems.

In July, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply shut Mililani Well No. 2 after it was found to be contaminated with dibromochloropropane (DBCP). The previous October, Mililani Well No. 5 was closed, again because of DBCP contamination. Mililani Well No. 6 was drilled but never put in service — again, because of unacceptably high DBCP levels.

On September 28, the Mililani Neighborhood Board was informed that yet another chemical, trichloropropane (TCP), had been found in Mililani water by one testing laboratory.

Samuel S.H. Lee — now a state representative — was chairman of the Mililani/Waipi`o/Melemanu Neighborhood Board at the time. The day after the disclosure, he fired off a letter to Jack Suwa, chairman of the state Board of Agriculture, in essence asking Suwa what Suwa knew and when he knew it.

“The Mililani/Waipi`o/Melemanu Neighborhood Board No. 25 is conducting an investigation into the contamination of the water supply in Mililani by trichloropropane,” Lee wrote. He went on to ask Suwa “when was the contamination discovered, at what level, and by whom?”

The state’s response shows a history of false starts, distractions, equipment problems, and, ultimately, a lack of resolve that led to Mililani residents possibly having been exposed needlessly to pesticide contaminants for more than two years from the time contamination was first detected.

A Long Story

On October 25, 1983, Suwa replied to Lee’s inquiry. In a four-page-long letter, he indicated that DBCP contamination had been detected in Mililani water by a California Department of Health Services laboratory in February 1981. (Tap water samples, ranging from 10 to 14 parts per trillion, showed even higher levels than samples from Mililani Well No. 1, pump 3, where DBCP was present in concentrations of 4 to 5 parts per trillion.)

The California lab test results could not be confirmed, however, by the Hawai`i Department of Health — which was using a test protocol that was far less sensitive than that used by the California lab. The California lab was able to detect DBCP down to 1 part in a trillion; the Hawai`i lab could only detect DBCP contamination when it was present in concentrations of 50 parts per trillion.

In an effort to confirm the California results, Suwa wrote, Lyle Wong, of the Department of Agriculture’s pesticides branch, worked with Maui Land and Pineapple Company to devise a way of obtaining a more concentrated sample. The procedure, which involved filtering a trickle of water from Milliani Well No. 1 through a resin column, took more than a month to set up and required placement of equipment in the well field for 38 days.

“The column extracts were analyzed by ML&P … The results confirmed the presence of DBCP, but also showed the presence of other unidentified peaks.” The tests were run using a gas chromatograph, Suwa said. After the results were received, the state wanted to verify the results using a mass spectrometer.

“Mass spectrometry was arranged with the Department of Agricultural Biochemistry, University of Hawai`i; however, the test could not be run because of equipment breakdown. The Hilo Crime Laboratory was approached, but the samples would not be accepted. As a result, the [Department of Health] made arrangements with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for sample analysis by the USGS Denver laboratory,” Suwa informed Lee.

The state mailed the samples from Mililani Well No. 1 to the USGS on May 29, 1981. On September 15, it received results of tests run on that sample, plus results of a chemical analysis of water from Mililani Well No. 5, which the USGS had sampled in June, just before the well was placed into service.

Results of the tests run on the Well No. 1 sample “showed the presence of 2 ppm DBCP and 250 ppm 1,2,3-trichloropropane,” Suwa said, as well as “the presence of tribromoethane and 1,1,2-trichloropropane, both unconfirmed, and other unidentified hydrocarbons at levels too low to speciate.”

“The water sample from Mililani Well No. 5 showed no detectable levels of either DBCP or EDB,” Suwa continued, “However, other hydrocarbon and halogenated residues were identified, including: methylene chloride, cyclohexane, benzene, trichloroethene, tetrachloroethene, toluene, and ethylbenzene.” Other chemicals tentatively identified were L-alanine (an amino acid), trichloromethane, 1,2-dichloropropane (DCP), hexane, 2-hexanone, and hexamethylcyclotrisiloxane.

Tests On Hold

On October 20, 1981, more than a month after the test results were received, representatives from state agencies, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, and two pineapple plantations (Dole and ML&P) got together to discuss the problem, Suwa informed Lee. At that meeting, it was brought out that Shell DD, used as a fumigant for 35 years by Dole in the area of the Mililani well field, contained TCP (0.4 percent by weight) and DCP (30.1 percent by weight). “The small percentage of 1,2,3-trichloropropane in Shell DD appeared inconsistent with the disproportionate amount of the chemical present in the column extract compared to DBCP,” Suwa reported. “The possibility of industrial contamination was discussed, since 1,2,3-tricloropropane has commercial uses as a degreasing agent and solvent.” The DCP was “possibly of agricultural origin,” he acknowledged, but he went on to say that, at this meeting “the discussion focused on the extent to which the well casing and hole [in Mililani Well No. 5] may have been contaminated in the course of drilling and placement of the pipe.”

Another possible explanation of the presence of DCP and TCP suggested at the meeting was “surface runoff” from an area just above the Mililani well field that had been used by Dole for washing plants. If surface runoff were the contamination source, then the chemicals would also be present in soil, so, Suwa continued, “the decision was made to sample soil… This effort was delayed for several months because of the absence of analytical standards for di- and trichloropropane.”

Heptachlor Distractions

Not until March of 1982 were soil samples finally collected and tests run at the University of Hawai`i. “These showed no detectable levels of di- and trichloropropane or EDB,” Suwa said, although “two soil samples collected from the pineapple field showed measurable levels of DBCP at 0.55 and 9.6 ppb.”

He continued: “The largely negative findings lessened the immediate concern regarding surface runoff contamination of the Mililani well field. Further, with heptachlor contamination of O`ahu milk a priority concern at the time, no further sampling of soil or water was scheduled other than for DBCP and EDB.”

More than a year passed, and no further sampling was done. “With the discovery of EDB contamination of the Waipahu well field in June of 1983,” Suwa wrote, “attention again focused on other contaminants. All laboratory reports in file were reviewed. From this review, it became apparent that the Mililani wells required retesting for trichloropropane and other suspected contaminants.

“The Department of Health arranged to have the well field and several other sites sampled for testing by local as well as mainland laboratories. The presence of TCP in Mililani water was reported by one laboratory. Because of some discrepancies in the laboratory report … a resampling of the wells was ordered by the DOH on September 27, 1983. This was the day before the disclosure of TCP in Mililani water at the Mililani Neighborhood Board meeting. These results are pending.”


Even before Suwa wrote his letter, however, confirmation of TCP in Mililani water had been confirmed. On October 19, 1983, the state Department of Education announced that water wagons would be sent out to Mililani’s three schools (the Mililani High School, Mililani-uka Elementary, and Mililani-waena Elementary).

On December 2, a group of Mililani residents brought a federal lawsuit against manufacturers of pesticides and two Hawai`i pineapple growers. The suit sought to obtain $3 million a year from the defendants, to be used for treating contaminated water, and $5 million to fund long-term health studies.

According to one of the residents, Paul Herr, the lawsuit was eventually dropped when Castle & Cooke (corporate parent of the company that developed Mililani Town) purchased a water treatment plant. “All the residents wanted was safe water,” Herr told Environment Hawai`i, “so after the treatment plant was installed, the lawsuit was dropped.”

For the last 13 years, Mililani residents have been drinking water that passes through a granular-activated carbon filter on its way to their taps. The filter reduces concentrations of DBCP, TCP, and other contaminants, but does not eliminate them altogether.

Volume 6, Number 11 May 1996

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