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Wednesday, April 23, 2014         

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Dirty beaches mar Ko Olina

Some tourism officials worry that the news of contamination will have a lingering effect

By Allison Schaefers

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On their last day on Oahu, the Winters family of Wisconsin drove to Ko Olina for the third time hoping to swim in the resort's normally crystal-clear lagoons.

The family left disappointed when they were told that all four lagoons were still closed at the resort beach in front of the upscale JW Marriott Ihilani, Ko Olina Beach Club and the future Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa. The resort beach and others along the leeward coast were closed last Thursday by the city after its only landfill flooded, pouring medical waste and other debris into the ocean.

"We were able to see the beach before it happened. It was so incredibly beautiful, but we didn't have a chance to swim," said Joette Winters.

By the time the family returned, "everything had changed," she said.

The city has posted signs saying "Warning: Contaminated Water -- No Swimming, No Boating, No Fishing," at several beaches along Oahu's leeward coast.

The once-pristine beach at Ko Olina was littered with used needles, plastic casings and other medical waste. Water at the resort's marina was as brown as the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ship docked there by Disney, and lagoon waters were brown to about a half-mile out from the coast.

While some of the leeward beaches, including Nimitz and White Plains, have reopened, Ko Olina remained closed yesterday. Public beach access was closed, too. Greeters at the guard shack blocked would-be lagoon visitors from entering the resort. Those who managed to get by, as well as residents, were further dissuaded from getting too near contaminated waters by barriers at the lagoons.

Guests at the JW Marriott Ihilani and Marriott's Ko Olina Beach Club were issued letters by hotel management explaining that the beaches were still unsafe to swim, said Sweetie Nelson, a spokeswoman for Ko Olina Beach Resort. Orange cones, ropes and signs also kept guests from getting too near the ocean, Nelson said.

"We are on pins and needles waiting to hear when the beach can reopen," she said. "But obviously we have to get the go-ahead from the city that it's safe first. We are hoping to hear good news in the next day or two."

Ko Olina workers were joined yesterday by city Waste Management personnel who will continue scouring leeward beaches until they are clear of landfill debris. Ko Olina residents Sue and Sam Rakes were trying to do their part, too. The couple, who bought a Ko Olina Fairways townhouse in 2009, were filling plastic bags with some of the waste that dotted their neighborhood.

"It's getting better," Sue Rakes said. "Right after the storm, we filled bags with so much plastic that we were about to give up."

There is noticeably less waste on the beach at Ko Olina; however, the couple said that it will be a while before they swim in the resort's lagoons.

"After what I saw, 10 years from now, I'll still be hesitant to go in the water," said Sam Rakes.

State health spokeswoman Janice Okubo said yesterday that the state and city were in discussions about when Ko Olina's beach ban could be removed.

The city posted warning signs after tests showed a high level of bacteria in the water; however, Okubo said that subsequent tests taken after storm runoff and water discharge from the landfill stopped have showed lower levels of bacteria.

"It showed the water is returning to normal, but we still need to discuss it with the city," she said.

The resort, which is expecting full occupancy for the upcoming NFL Pro Bowl on Jan. 30, needs to get its beaches reopened soon, Nelson said.

"We're worried," Nelson said. "If our hotels are impacted economically, we are impacted."

The Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau have not received any visitor complaints. Still, news of the contamination has spread far and wide and some in the tourism industry have expressed concern that the flooding could have a lingering impact.

Sherri Bracy, a tourist from Michigan, who was sunbathing yesterday outside of Ko Olina's Beach Club, said that she can understand why the ban might give some a reason to complain. However, Bracy said that so far her family's four-day vacation at the resort has been OK.

"We've spent time at the pool and in the sunshine," Bracy said. "It's about 5 degrees in Michigan so we're just happy to be here."

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Star-Advertiser reporter Gary Kubota contributed to this report.





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