Panel investigating underground contaminant spread on Molokai

MECO working to clean up site of old power plant

Two Kaunakakai parcels will undergo studies to measure the spread of contaminants left behind by the former Molokai Electric Co. The Molokai Planning Commission approved two permits Wednesday to allow Maui Electric Co., the state Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do the studies. Maui Electric purchased Molokai Electric in 1989 but never operated out of the Kaunakakai site.

The Molokai Planning Commission has approved two permits to investigate the spread of underground contaminants on the site of a former power plant in Kaunakakai.

The commission voted 6-0 Wednesday to grant the special management area permits to Maui Electric Co., which is working with state and federal officials to clean up the site once occupied by Molokai Electric Co.

“While Maui Electric never owned the Molokai Electric Company’s Kaunakakai property and never operated at this site, we are taking steps to help assess the restoration of this former industrial site for current land use standards,” MECO spokeswoman Shayna Decker said.

For 50 years, Molokai Electric operated a power plant and equipment storage facility in downtown Kaunakakai. Past studies on the former power plant site have detected contaminants below the gravel and pavement. Because of this, it’s known as a brownfield, a term used to describe properties with possible hazardous substances.

Now, the recently approved permits will allow MECO, the Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do a more in-depth study.

“We’re basically expanding to fill the data gap so we can get a thorough picture . . . of how far the contamination may have spread,” said Matthew Neal, senior environmental scientist for MECO-contracted Element Environmental.

Molokai Electric Co. started operating in the area in 1932, according to MECO. Its power plant sat on a 1.5-acre parcel across from what is now Paddler’s Inn. The partially paved lot containing a commercial warehouse is now owned by Misaki’s Inc., according to county property tax records. And what used to be Molokai Electric’s storage facility is now a 12,282-square-foot, asphalt-paved parking lot behind Take’s Variety Store. It’s owned by the Gary O. Galiher Trust.

One permit will allow MECO to study these two parcels. If studies show that contamination has spread, a second permit allows for studies on outer lots.

In 1983, Molokai Electric sold the property and started leasing the space from the new owner. The utility relocated its entire plant operations to Palaau in 1985 and terminated its lease with the landowner of the former site. Maui Electric purchased financially struggling Molokai Electric in 1989.

Shortly thereafter, the Molokai Planning Commission asked the state Department of Health to look at the site. A study by the department in 1994 and a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analysis in 2000 revealed contaminants in the soil that included petroleum, metals and polychlorinated biphenyls.

PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in some transformers and electrical components, according to MECO. The chemicals are persistent and don’t degrade quickly.

With landowners looking to redevelop the property, Hawaiian Electric Co. met with the Department of Health in 2008 and began planning a more thorough investigation.

But Molokai resident and retired operating engineer Charles Miguel said he’s frustrated that it’s taken this long. He said authorities have known for a while that the ground was contaminated.

“The fuel’s been leaking for years,” said Miguel, who testified at the meeting Wednesday. “I would say from the early ’60s. It’s not something that just happened a couple of years ago.”

Instead of using tankers to deliver fuel, Molokai Electric put in pipelines to pump fuel for the generators, Miguel said. Eventually, the pipes would rot and leak, and Molokai Electric would replace them.

“They don’t pump anymore,” Miguel said. “But whatever was in the pipe, that’s why they got contamination. It’s bad. It’s going to be a big cleanup.”

Miguel also was concerned about fuel moving underground. When the tide is low, Miguel can see a rainbow sheen on the water by the Kaunakakai pier, indicating an oily presence, he said.

“The cleanup plan has been lengthy, and we are aiming to move that along more quickly,” Decker said.

In the meantime, “current gravel cover and asphalt pavement provide cover for any under-surface contamination and that no public health exposure risk is present,” she added, citing Department of Health and EPA studies.

Studies on the site should begin around June, Decker said. Workers will drill for soil samples, collecting 208 soil tubes to take back to the lab.

“The drilling is actually removing a 2-inch-diameter plug of soil, much like dipping a straw into your drink and plugging the end with your finger, resulting in only the contents of the straw being withdrawn,” Decker said. “The holes will be backfilled with concrete and will not be open to other contamination potential.”

They’ll also study vapors within the soil and sample concrete. But residents at past meetings were concerned that drilling would spread the contamination or damage the drinking water.

Neal, the environmental consultant, said the work would be “minimally disruptive.”

“If there is contamination there, the act of us drilling to collect samples will not spread the contamination,” he said.

Work is expected to last about two months, according to the permit application. After the study is completed, MECO will bring the findings to the community and discuss cleanup options.

“Some in our community are quick to criticize, so it’s important to also recognize MECO’s sincere efforts to address these legacy issues,” commission member Rob Stephenson said. “I have every confidence they are taking the appropriate and necessary steps to move forward.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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