Pineapple's Lasting Legacy: The Poisoned Wells of Maui

posted in: June 1996, Water | 0

In June 1979, John Mink, a hydrologist under contract to Maui Land & Pineapple Company, conducted a series of water quality tests. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had asked for the tests to determine if a chemical used to control nematodes in Hawaiian pineapple fields was migrating to the water table, as had occurred elsewhere in the United States.

Mink tested 10 sites, selected because of their proximity to pineapple fields where the chemical, dibromochloropropane (or DBCP) had been used. DBCP turned up in five of the 10 sites, at levels ranging from .26 parts per billion, at a spring in Honolua, to 2.23 ppb at Pauwela. At springs feeding into Maliko Gulch, DBCP contrations were as high as 1.7 ppb.

At the time, Hawai`i had no standards for DBCP in drinking water. In California, however, drinking water sources were being closed when concentrations greater than 1 ppb were found. (By contrast, in Hawai`i today, the maximum contaminant level for DBCP is 40 parts per trillion.)

More than a year later, people who had been drinking water from the Maliko spring learned of the contamination and were understandably upset. When David Williams, agricultural research director for ML&P, was asked why residents in the area were not informed, he was reported by The Honolulu Advertiser to have responded: “Why should we tell anyone we were testing anyway? The information was published with the EPA. We can’t go around looking for every backwoods person who doesn’t know what they are talking about. I tell you nobody drinks that water.”

But at least three families living in Maliko Gulch were drinking it — and using it to irrigate truck crops and water livestock.

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Only in Hawai`i

In 1977, California banned all further uses of DBCP, citing concerns over health effects on exposed workers. DBCP was known to cause cancers in test animals and was suspected of causing cancers in humans. In addition, workers exposed to DBCP were now experiencing reduced fertility and lower sperm counts. Shortly after California implemented its ban, the EPA announced a schedule for phasing out most uses of the pesticide. Only in Hawai`i, as a result of special pleadings by the Hawai`i pineapple plantations and the highest officials in state government, would use of DBCP be allowed to extend past 1981.

DBCP was specifically developed in the 1950s for use in Hawaiian pineapple fields. It had been used since 1958 as the preferred method of controlling nematodes, or root worms, in drier areas of pineapple cultivation, such as Lana`i, Moloka`i, and much of Maui. Ethylene dibromide, or EDB, was used mainly to control pineapple nematodes in wetter areas, especially on the central O`ahu plain.

For almost as long as DBCP was in use, received wisdom held that water supplies — at least in Hawai`i — were pretty safe from contamination. DBCP was believed to bind tightly to soil or degrade on exposure to air, although little evidence seems to have been gathered to support these beliefs.

When DBCP began turning up in California wells in the late 1970s, the EPA responded by asking for water samples from all areas — mainly in Hawai`i and Florida — where DBCP had been used. In addition to Mink’s tests, the state Department of Health collected samples from 16 sites scattered among four islands: O`ahu, Maui, Moloka`i, and Lana`i, focusing especially on public water systems. As described in a June 26, 1979, memo from Thomas Arizumi, chief of the DOH drinking water program, results “indicate no detectable amounts of DBCP were found in any of the public water systems… Insignificant trace amounts of DBCP were barely detected in a non-public water system on Maui. Further testing is scheduled to monitor future contamination.”

At the time, the only notice the public in Hawai`i received about the testing appeared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin of June 21, 1979. Under a Gannett wire-service story headlined, “Isle Water Found Free of Pesticide,” writer Chris Collins inaccurately reported: “Federal inspectors have found no traces of [DBCP] in water samples they took in Hawai`i…”

* * *
Only on Maui

Dole had stopped using it on O`ahu in the late 1970s, and in 1981, announced it would suspend use of DBCP on Lana`i. Del Monte had never used much DBCP on O`ahu to start with, and had stopped using it on Moloka`i fields in the 1970s.

That left Maui Land & Pine as pretty much the sole user affected when in January 1981, a settlement was reached on an appeal of the EPA’s ban on DBCP. Manufacturers agreed to withdraw requests for registration of DBCP for use on other crops, while pineapple growers in Hawai`i agreed to accept new safety regulations on DBCP use in the islands, including a requirement that field workers wear full-body protective gear and that application occur at least 270 days before harvest.

EPA Administrator Douglas Costle approved the settlement, overriding the recommendation of an administrative judge within his own agency. DBCP, Costle found, “does not result in unreasonable adverse effects to man or the environment,” as used in Hawai`i.

He continued: “Present evidence does not indicate that DBCP contamination of drinking water in Hawai`i is likely to present a significant risk to public health… I find that the economic benefit to Hawaiian pineapple growers outweighs the remaining risks associated with the use of DBCP.” According to 1978 testimony to the EPA from the Pineapple Growers Association of Hawai`i, a ban on DBCP would reduce the yield of their crop by $4 million.

Faced with growing evidence of water contamination, in January 1985, the EPA ordered Maui Land & Pine to stop its use of DBCP within two years. In addition, the EPA told the company that, should it desire to use DBCP in that time, it would have to obtain the unanimous consent of a two-member panel, consisting of a representative of the EPA and one of the state. (Ariyoshi appointed his director of agriculture, Jack Suwa, to serve as his proxy.) The approval was intended to ensure that the chemical would be applied only in areas where water contamination was thought to be least likely to occur.

* * *
The Last Holdout

Within a month of the order, Maui Land & Pine had requested approval for use of DBCP on 2,100 acres — even though news reports at the time said the company’s existing inventory of DBCP would have allowed treatment of just 450 acres. According to a report by Barbara Hastings in The Honolulu Advertiser of March 2, 1985, Joseph Hartley, company president at the time, “said the EPA wants his company to use up not only what it has of DBCP, but also any remaining stocks on the Mainland.”

The joint panel gave tentative approval to a downsized plan by early March. In a preliminary report, the panel found that 15 pineapple fields (1,351 acres) could be treated with DBCP, with little likelihood that further water contamination would result.

A public meeting on the plan was scheduled to be held in Kahului on March 20. Five days before, newspapers across the state reported additional well contaminants had been found in two Maui wells. Tests at the Old Maui High School, shut down as a water source two years earlier because of DBCP contamination, now revealed concentrations of trichloropropane (TCP) in the range of 400 to 450 parts per trillion. At Pauwela, TCP was present at 1,200 parts per trillion. DBCP concentrations at both sites remained significant (in the range of 100 ppt), while EDB was turning up at concentrations ranging from 65 to 120 ppt.

The hearing lasted more than seven hours, with most of the speakers testifying in fervent opposition to continued use of DBCP. One of the few testifying in support was Douglas MacCluer, plantation manager for Maui Land & Pine. According to the Star-Bulletin of March 21, 1985, MacCluer “noted that after over 25 years of DBCP use, no residues from the chemical found in any municipal water supply have ever been attributed to the company’s farming operation.”

Officers of the company also made the argument that using up Mainland supplies of DBCP on Maui fields was the environmentally safest way to dispose of existing stocks — an argument that left many Maui residents complaining that their island was to become the dumping ground for a chemical deemed to dangerous for use elsewhere in the United States.

By mid-April 1985, Ariyoshi, acting on Suwa’s advice, announced he would withhold the state’s approval of Maui Land & Pine’s request. And on October 24, 1985, the EPA made it official with a formal announcement that it was denying Maui Land & Pine’s request.

For the next several months, Department of Agriculture records show, Maui Land & Pine was hoping to be able to avoid paying hazardous-waste disposal costs for the 27,951 pounds of DBCP it had on hand by negotiating with a Tucson, Arizona, company that wanted to ship the DBCP to Mexico. By June 1986, however, Maui Land & Pine had given up on that plan. Instead, it contracted with Bay Area Environmental, a hazardous waste disposal company based in Richmond, California, and on June 27, 1986, the last stocks of unused DBCP known to remain on the islands were shipped out.

* * *
A Time Bomb

While use of DBCP on Maui effectively ended in 1984, tons of the chemical remain in the soil. According to studies done at the University of Hawai`i Water Resource Research Center, DBCP and EDB can and do work their way through the topsoil, through the underlying basalt, and into the freshwater lenses that serve as drinking water sources. The speed with which the chemicals migrate to the groundwater seems to vary with rainfall — which may help explain why DBCP has not shown up yet in wells on arid Lana`i or on Moloka`i’s dry southern flanks.

On Maui, groundwater contamination was known to exist at the Old Maui High School site, at Maliko Gulch springs, and at Pauwela — all in east Maui — and at Honolua, along the west Maui coast. Since none of the sources was used for drinking water, no official concern was raised over the degree of contamination — nor does it appear as though water quality was monitored on a regular basis. State and federal rules require regular testing be done on sources of drinking water only. Throughout the 1980s, Maui drinking-water wells, tested every four years, remained clean. (Under state and EPA safe drinking-water regulations, wells showing no trace of contamination need not be tested as frequently as wells that test positive for chemical contaminants.)

All that changed in February 1992, when DBCP turned up in a well at Napili that supplied the Maui County water system’s service to Napili and parts of Lahaina. Initial concentrations of DBCP were scored at 100 parts per trillion, while tests over the next year showed concentrations as high as 360 ppt — nearly 10 times the state maximum contaminant level. Nearby wells used by Amfac to supply resorts, condominiums, and houses at Ka`anapali also showed high levels of DBCP (up to 210 ppt). In addition, trichloropropane, or TCP — a so-called “inert” ingredient in some pesticide formulations — turned up at Ka`anapali at levels as high as 900 parts per trillion. (The state maximum contaminant level for TCP is 800 parts per trillion.)

Under orders from the state Department of Health, Maui County and Amfac began treating the water through aeration (passing bubbles through the water drives the chemical into a more speeds the chemical breakdown of DBCP) and blending (diluting the contaminated water by mixing it with water from uncontaminated sources). In May 1994, the Department of Health directed the county to stop using the Napili well altogether. Amfac continues to use the Ka`anapali wells. To reduce the level of contamination to the legal limit, Amfac blends the water with cleaner sources.

Meanwhile, at Maliko

Even before the Napili well contamination was discovered, the Maui Department of Water Supply was facing the challenging task of finding ever more water to feed the growing demand brought on by rapid development in Kihei and Wailea in south Maui. To fill this need, the DWS began looking eastward to the reserves of water under Maui’s windward coast.

The department’s plan to develop a series of 10 wells from Maliko Gulch to Kaupakulua was unveiled to the Haiku Community Association in January 1992. DWS Director David Craddick scored few points with the east Maui group when he acknowledged that the wells would be developed primarily to serve central and south Maui and would not directly benefit residents of east Maui, who rely on catchment and surface water for domestic drinking water supplies. Although no test wells had been developed yet, the DWS had estimated that when the project was completed in the year 2003, some 16 million gallons a day would be added to the central Maui water delivery system.

Before the year was out, however, the plan was beginning to collapse. Results of samples taken from a test well showed the presence of DBCP and EDB at high concentrations — 230 parts per trillion and 210 ppt, respectively. (The maximum contaminant level for DBCP and EDB in Hawai`i is 40 parts per trillion.)

In August 1993, Craddick instructed Saito Engineering to stop work on a report to be submitted to the state Department of Health, in conjunction with the county’s application for a permit to use the well to supply a public water system. On the basis of a draft of the report, Craddick wrote, “the proposed treatment of contaminants initially identified with this well is not mitigated to the extent that the DOH is likely to grant approval to put this well into production.”

The final nail in the coffin for the DWS plan came in September 1993. On behalf of the Coalition to Protect East Maui Water Resources, Hui Alanui O Makena, Mary Evanson, and Marc Hodges, attorney Isaac Hall filed a suit challenging the adequacy of the environmental impact statement prepared for the water project. The EIS failed to describe the impact of pumping 16 million gallons a day from east Maui on the area’s streams, Hall said, nor did it analyze alternative actions, such as implementing a water conservation program.

* * *
The County Sues

Maui County is not the only area where DBCP has turned up in drinking water sources. DBCP-contaminated wells have turned up throughout the central plain on O`ahu and at Moloa`a, on Kaua`i.
Long before the problem was discovered in Hawai`i, California was finding DBCP in groundwater under its rich Central Valley soils. The geological conditions there — among them: sandy, permeable soils and relatively shallow aquifers — differ substantially from those in Hawai`i, where several hundred feet of basalt lie between the soil that receives chemical treatment and the water table. These differences, in fact, were highlighted by the pineapple growers and the state in their arguments before the EPA favoring a Hawai`i exemption for DBCP.

Starting in the early 1980s, several California cities and towns whose municipal water supplies were contaminated with DBCP brought suit against the manufacturers and distributors of the chemical, including Dow Chemical Co., Shell Oil Co., Occidental Chemical Co., and Amvac Chemical Corp. Most sought recovery of their past and future costs of bringing the water up to drinking-water standards.

Litigation in California dragged out for more than a decade, but starting in the 1990s, city after city entered into settlement agreements with the chemical makers. One of the largest settlement packages — $32 million in cash, plus a contract, valued at $70 million, for payment of 90 percent of water treatment costs for the next 40 years — came six months into the trial of the complaint brought against the manufacturers by the city of Fresno. The town of Dinuba received a $25 million settlement. Sanger, California, settled for $16.25 million, plus $7 million to $10 million in wellhead treatment costs.

According to Duane Miller, lead attorney for the city of Fresno, the chemical manufacturers were aware of DBCP’s potential to contaminate water long before it actually turned up in water supplies. In fact, he said, evidence showed they had discovered DBCP in well water long before August 1977, when California authorities first detected it. “They were aware of scientific studies showing that the chemical didn’t break down and would migrate in the soil,” Miller said, but did not provide this information to the EPA, even when the federal government specifically requested it in 1970.

The outcome of the Fresno litigation appears to have been the inspiration for a lawsuit filed by Maui County against DBCP manufacturers just last month over the contamination of the Napili well. The lawsuit was filed on May 3, 1996, two years after the Napili well was forced to close. Named as defendants are manufacturers Shell, Dow, Occidental and Amvac, and Brewer Environmental Industry, Inc., which sold DBCP in Hawai`i.

According to Corporation Counsel J.P. Schmidt, the suit was filed before the county had the opportunity to do extensive research, since the county felt that, under one theory of law, it was up against the two-year statute of limitations. Customarily, a party has two years from the time of the discovery of a “wrongful act” to file suit. If, however, the contamination is regarded as a “continuing nuisance,” the statute of limitations is a little more liberal, Schmidt said. In any event, the county acted when it did to protect its legal interest under the more conservative reading of the statute of limitations, he said.

Maui Land & Pine is not named as a defendant in the county’s lawsuit. Always in the past, users of agricultural chemicals have been regarded as legally untouchable, so long as they applied and disposed of those chemicals in accordance with EPA-approved label instructions. If the county discovers that Maui Land & Pine used the chemical in a manner not sanctioned by the EPA, however, the county could still add the company as a defendant, Schmidt said.

Volume 6, Number 12 June 1996

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