Popular Hilo Fishing Hole Is Considered for Superfund List

posted in: June 1993 | 2

On any given day, the banks of Hilo’s Waiakea Mill Pond are lined with people fishing. Young and old, male and female, Hawaiian, local, haole they’re all there, putting lines and nets in the water and hoping to take home a catch of ‘ama’ama (mullet), shrimp, or crab. The pond is part of the Wailoa River State Park, managed by the Department of Land and Natural Resources as a recreational fishing site.

The pond also maybe eligible for inclusion on the federal Superfund list of hazardous sites. A spokeswoman for EPA Region IX in San Francisco confirmed that it is among contaminated sites now being considered for nomination to the National Priorities List.

The primary contaminant in the pond is arsenic, although other toxic chemicals are present at high concentrations as well. Cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, and zinc have been detected at above-normal levels in the sediments of Waiakea Pond and the Wailoa River into which it feeds.

Most of the arsenic came from the Hawaiian Cane Products plant, which, from 1932 to 1963, manufactured canec wallboard from bagasse. According to a report prepared by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in 1990, the plant treated canec “with calcium arsenate and arsenic acid as an anti-termite agent.” Other sources of arsenic were probably the Waiakea Plantation and the Waiakea Mill. “The Waiakea Plantation conducted a weed control program using a sodium arsenate solution and the Waiakea Mill processed sugar cane from the plantation,” the report states.

The canec plant discharged its waste through a sewer pipe that emptied into the water at the point where the pond flows into Wailoa River. The NOAA report says, “An estimated 558 tons of arsenic compounds were released into the Hilo Bay estuary through this sewer line during the operational history of the plant.”

In 1971, the hotel complex known now as Waiakea Villas was built on the canec plant site. No tests for arsenic in the soils around the hotel were done until 1991, when a bank that held the mortgage on the land hired a consulting firm to do this work. The resulting report, on file with the state Department of Health, shows findings of arsenic in surface soils as high as 840 milligrams per kilogram of soil. Most were in the range of 140 mg/kg.

Arsenic can accumulate in sediments if it is associated with particles. It can also dissolve in water and remain in solution. It can become concentrated in tissue of plants and animals. According to the NOAA report, “Bioconcentration factors up to 2,000 times have been reported in algae, while factors of only 21 to 34 were reported for fish…. Higher bioconcentration in algae may be partly due to the fact that arsenic is an analog of phosphorous, an essential nutrient for plants.”

The NOAA report notes that bioassays and other toxicological investigations have not been done at the Hawaiian Cane Products site. Still, it notes, “Sporadic fish kills, up to several days in duration, have been reported in the Hilo Bay estuary; primarily in Waiakea Mill Pond,” with the last documented kill occurring in 1978. No cause has been pinned down.

The highest concentrations of arsenic, the report says, “have been consistently observed in southern portions of the pond near the former Hawaiian Cane building (432 to 6,370 mg/kg) and around the outfall used by the company near the confluence of the pond and Wailoa River (115 to 715 mg/kg). Maximum concentrations at eight sites in the pond and river “exceed reference levels for arsenic in the Hawaiian islands (13 mg/kg) and are approximately 34 times higher than anywhere else within the state.”

Surveys of the sediment suggest that “although discharges of effluent contaminated with arsenic have not occurred for over 25 years, sedimentation has not been sufficient to completely bury the contaminated sediments in Waiakea Mill Pond and the Wailoa River,” the report goes on to say. Researchers, it says, “concluded that physical disturbance of the sediments, particularly near old effluent discharge sites, could cause the release of substantial amounts of arsenic to the water or surface sediment layers.”

Contaminated sediments, the report notes, “have been described as anaerobic and largely devoid of benthic life… Whether this lack of biological activity is due to the highly anaerobic and nutrient-rich nature of the sediments, or whether arsenic and other contamination has rendered the sediments uninhabitable, has not been determined.”

While arsenic is the chief contaminant, the other metals found in the sediments may also be a hazard to marine life. According to the report, “concentrations of all seven of the… trace elements [cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury; nickel, and zinc] were found in the sediments of the Hilo Bay estuary at concentrations reported in other studies to have toxic effects in some organisms. It is therefore possible that these sediments are toxic to resources of concern to NOAA.”

Del Monte Plantation Is Nominated to Superfund

The Del Monte Corp.’s pineapple plantation at Kunia, on O’ahu, has been nominated for addition to the Superfund list. If the nomination becomes final, Hawai’i will be represented on the Superfund list with three sites: Kunia, Schofield Barracks, and Pearl Harbor. The contaminants of concern at Kunia are two fumigants used in pineapple production: ethylene dibromide (EDB, also known as 1,2-dibromoethane) and dibromochloropropane (DBCP or 1,2-dibromo-3-cliloropropane) -both of which are probable human carcinogens. According to the joint EPA/Hawai’i Department of Health press release, issued May 7, 1993, Del Monte used the fumigants from the 1940s until 1983. The plantation covers 6,000 acres in central O’ahu.

The plantation’s Kunia Camp Well, which supplied drinking water to about 500 people, was known to be contaminated with EDB and DBCP by 1980. The DOH at that time ordered the well removed from service. In 1981, Del Monte removed 18,000 tons of contaminated soil, which it then spread over pineapple fields. (The Department of Health was concerned about this practice; it queried the EPA, which replied that this was not a problem since, after all, the chemicals that contaminated the soil were designed for agricultural application.)

A site inspection report prepared for the EPA in 1990 described Del Monte’s operations that were behind the contamination. “From the 1940s to 1975, drums of both EDB and DBCP were stored on bare ground on the slope of a small gully located approximately 50 to 150 feet north of the Kunia Camp Well. It is likely that the release of contaminants from the storage area in the gully was systematic, resulting from poor housekeeping practices during the mixing, handling, and dispensing of soil fumigants stored in drums.”

The spilled pesticides appear to have had a straight shot to the basal aquifer, which supplied drinking water. “Based on drilling techniques employed in 1946,” the site inspection report says, “it is believed that the annular space of the Kunia Camp Well was left open, and that it may provide for the movement of contaminants from the perched aquifer zone to the deeper drinking water aquifer,” that is, the basal lens. Pumping tests of the Kunia Camp Well, which draws from the deeper aquifer, did not “show a marked decrease of contaminant concentration over time, which indicates that contamination of the deeper aquifer has occurred.”

Besides the contamination from the storage and mixing area, another source is thought to be a spill of 495 gallons of EDB in 1977.

“Other areas of concern,” the report states, “include the burial of 43.5 pounds of methyl bromide in deteriorating containers near the border of Del Monte’s property with Schofield Barracks. Additionally, an unknown amount of pesticide rinse water exists from the pesticide application equipment wash area and the former wash rack, and an unknown number of fumigant containers have been buried on site.” Methyl bromide is acutely toxic and can cause birth defects.

Since the Kunia Camp Well has been shut down, the plantation has been drawing potable water from an upslope Navy well that itself is contaminated with carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethene, cis/trans 1,2-dichloroethene. According to the site inspection report, “Del Monte installed an air-stripping tower to remove the traces of contamination from the potable water supply… sometime after 1986.” The source of contamination in the Navy well, it notes, “appears to be the Schofield Barracks, a National Priorities List site, to the north of the plantation.”

A spokesman for Del Monte said that the company would be challenging the Superfund nomination. “Del Monte is in the process of commenting on the application,” said Brian Ishida, a manager at the plantation. “We are confident that we will not be placed on the list.”

Despite Ban on Heptachlor, Its Use Has Continued

When Ecology and Environment, Inc., consultant to the EPA, was preparing its Kunia plantation site inspection report in 1990, it asked Del Monte for a list of pesticides that the plantation was using for the control of pests other than nematodes. Among the 20 pesticides on the list provided by Del Monte was heptachlor.

The authors of the report took note of this: “The facility has reported current use of Heptachlor, which, according to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) program of EPA, has been banned for pineapple cultivation since April 15, 1988.”

Most uses of the pesticides heptachlor and its close chemical cousin chlordane were banned by April 15, 1988, when Velsicol Chemical Corp., the manufacturer, agreed to stop sales of stocks bearing the Velsicol label. However, a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals on February 3 1989, overturned a lower court ruling upholding the ban. According to a report in the March 1989 edition of Pesticides and You, published by the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, the appeals court allowed “retailers and commercial exterminators to sell off some existing stocks of the material to unsuspecting consumers (NC4MP et al. v. EPA, Civil Action No.87-02089). During NCAMP’s litigation, Velsicol Chemical Corp., the basic manufacturer, agreed to stop use of their chlordane stocks by April 15, 1988, but non-Velsicol labeled chlordane can be sold.”

Brian Ishida, a manager at Del Monte, gave the following statement to Environment Hawai’i when the company was asked for comment: “The use of heptachlor as a part of the safe cultivation of pineapple in Hawai’i is authorized by the governing regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Ishida was asked on what basis he made that claim. He then read to Environment Hawai’i a letter dated January 24, 1979, from the EPA, which states: “Any party that purchases heptachlor for a phased out use may carry over stock not sold or used in a calendar year to the following calendar year. End-use products may be used indefinitely until supplies are exhausted.”

George LaRocca, heptachlor product manager at EPA’s Washington headquarters said that the phase-out ban on heptachlor’s use in pineapple cultivation (and ten other uses) went into effect in 1978, although the manufacturer could continue producing supplies for the banned uses until 1983, within certain limits. These limits were put in place so that companies using heptachlor would be prevented from stockpiling supplies, he said, adding, “Who’d’ve thought their existing stocks would’ve lasted so long?”

Sarah Sullivan of the Washington office of NCAMP, the group that sued the EPA concerning ongoing permitted uses of heptachlor in 1987, said she was dismayed to learn of the continuing use of heptachlor in pineapple cultivation. “We thought that had stopped years ago,” she said.

Better Living Through Chemistry?

The health effects of the contaminants at Waiakea Pond and Kunia are well known and devastating. Here’s a brief synopsis:


Arsenic and its soluble compounds are extremely poisonous. At low doses, it can cause illness. Arsenic exposure during pregnancy in humans has been tentatively associated with decreased birthweight of newborns and increased spontaneous abortions. Arsenic is teratogenic – causing malformations and structural defects in developing organisms – in hamsters, mice and rats.1


This is classified by the Public Health Service as a substance “that may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen,” that is, a cancer-causing agent. In October 1979, the EPA unconditionally suspended all DBCP-containing products for all uses except pineapple cultivation in Hawai’i. Its use in Hawai’i was to have been phased out by 1987.2 DBCP also has adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes. According to the GAO, “female animal exposure to DBCP has been shown to alter ovarian function and decrease fertility. In men, occupational exposure has been associated with decreased sperm counts and infertility.”


Like DBCP, this is a suspected carcinogen, causing cancer in laboratory animals. In addition to being used as a fumigant, it was an additive in leaded gasoline and has other industrial applications. It probably has an impact on reproductive organs. “Female rat estrous cycles were impeded but only at doses lethal to 20 percent of the animals. Male agricultural workers have exhibited decreased sperm density… after ethylene dibromide exposure.”

1Information on the reproductive effects of arsenic, DBCP, and EDB is taken from the General Accounting Office report, “Reproductive and Developmental Toxicants: Regulatory Actions Provide Uncertain Protection,” GAO/PEMD-92-3 (October 1991).

2Information on the carcinogenicity of DBCP and EDB is from “Fourth Annual Report on Carcinogens,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service (1985). Information on phase-out of DBCP use is from The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 1985.

Volume 3, Number 12 June 1993

2 Responses

  1. Aloha I’m trying to figure out if the Waikea pond is contaminated for putting hands or feet in as I live next to it please? Mahalo

    • Patricia Tummons

      Aloha, Ellen,
      I believe most of the arsenic in Waiakea pond is in the mud and soil. So you are probably okay getting wet there. I would not advise stirring up the sediment, however.


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