OCEAN VIEW, HAWAII >> A thin layer of fine white dust could be seen covering Genesis Enos’ Ford pickup truck when he pulled up to the Ocean View Post Office around midday Thursday.
Enos lives on a 3-acre lot in Hawaiian Ranchos in lower Ocean View and owns another 3 acres in the upper section of the rural subdivision, which lies about 50 miles south of the summit of Kilauea Volcano.
“I woke up one morning, and it was like somebody had put baby powder all over my truck,” he said. “You could taste the sulfur dioxide in the air. And to think I was breathing that while I was sleeping.’”
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The 4,500 residents of the expansive Ocean View community, which is carved into old lava flows from Mauna Loa, have been suffering some of the worst of the vog and ashfall from the Kilauea eruption that began May 3. Noxious fumes have been billowing from fissures in the lower East Rift Zone in Puna, while daily explosions at the summit have been shooting ash up to 30,000 feet into the atmosphere.
The new vents have been producing 20,000 tons of sulfur dioxide a day, more than four times the amount coming from the summit’s Halemaumau lava lake in April, according to Tina Neal, scientist-in-charge of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
The largest ashfall occurred overnight May 16, and since then smaller bursts of gas and ash have been released during summit explosions.
Tradewinds have been steering the sulfur dioxide, ash particles and other pollutants offshore of Puna, but even then, ominous clouds of white and gray volcanic emissions have been drifting south toward Pahala and Ocean View in Kau. On light-wind days, the heavy, gray haze obscures the rugged landscape and ocean views that gave the area its name.
Enos, 64, recalled another morning when he awoke to blue skies only to watch “a beautiful silver plume overtake the view.” On another occasion, when he was driving through the Kau Desert past Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on his way back from Hilo, a “white, dry rain” began to fall.
“It was kind of spooky. The visibility was only 20 feet,” he said. “I put on my mask. That was an experience. I had to put a new air filter in my truck the next day.”
Hawaii County Civil Defense, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the state Department of Health have been issuing daily warnings about the risk of volcanic emissions, which can cause eye and throat irritation, headaches, coughing, breathing difficulty and increased susceptibility to respiratory ailments.
HVO reported Thursday that gases from the Puna lava flows have increased over the past two weeks, and Civil Defense advised that heavier vog is expected to expand its reach through the weekend, blanketing interior and southern regions of the island and wrapping around to Kona.
The Department of Health announced Thursday it planned to install 10 additional permanent air-quality monitoring stations to measure fine particles and sulfur dioxide levels on Hawaii island. There already are five Department of Health stations in Hilo, Mountain View, Pahala, Ocean View and Kona and two federally operated stations in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.
Specific locations for the new stations have not been determined, but they likely will be set up in South Kohala and North and South Kona on the west side of the island, according to a news release. Each can cost as much as $120,000, not including installation, DOH said.
Once operational, the air-quality monitors will provide real-time data so emergency response agencies can advise residents and visitors to take appropriate precautions.
Ocean View’s air quality in the weeks since the Kilauea eruption has been the worst seen by Randy and Kathy Matteo since moving to Hawaiian Ranchos seven years ago from Pahoa, which is far closer to the lower East Rift Zone.
“We used to run 3 to 5 miles every day, but now we don’t run — no way,” said Randy Matteo, 59.
The home builder said vog lends the air a burned smell, but when ash falls “it smells like sulfur, and that’s when you close up the house.”
Sales of particulate and multipurpose respirators and dust masks have been brisk at the Rancho Ace Home Center, according to cashier Gaylen DeCoito, 31, of Naalehu.
“We grew up with vog and this is bad. The smell is different,” she said.
“I have a maroon car, and it was covered with ash and it was gray. I was like, ‘Is that my car?’ You just gotta go with it.”
Across the parking lot at Ocean View Pizzaria, cashier Shalese Smith, 34, said she’s been keeping her four asthma-prone children indoors and using their nebulizers when necessary. She also employs air purifiers and has been keeping the windows closed.
Like most residents in the subdivision, her family relies on a catchment system for nonpotable water. Because of concerns about acid rain contamination from the volcano, they are now hauling in water for bathing and other household uses “just to be safe,” she said.
“Some days you wake up to the smell of rotten eggs and firecrackers,” said Smith, who was born and raised in Ocean View. “We’ve had to deal with vog my whole life, but not like this.”
Those suffering from health problems associated with vog appear to be managing on their own. The Department of Health has received few reports of hospitalizations from eruption-related respiratory illnesses, according to spokeswoman Janice Okubo.
The agency’s Disease Investigation Branch has been checking in regularly with hospitals and the 24-hour Poison Hotline and have found nothing unusual, she said Thursday.
DOH’s Emergency Medical Services System, Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office and District Health Office on Hawaii island also have been closely monitoring air-quality conditions and impacts, Okubo said.
At a community meeting Thursday night at the Ocean View Community Center, Neal of the USGS told the approximately 125 residents gathered that the ash from Kilauea is “more of a nuisance than an acute danger.” She said the ash comprises pulverized rock, crystal and glass particles that are abrasive but not toxic, and that only a very small percentage of ash can be inhaled deeply into the lungs.
Neal added that the summit ash has traveled no farther than Captain Cook. Vog is a different story, she said, with clouds of volcanic gases from Kilauea detected as far away as Guam in the Western Pacific.
John Peard of the DOH’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office in Hilo advised Ocean View residents to reduce their exposure to vog by restricting their outdoor activities or the intensity of their outdoor activities to avoid breathing through the mouth, staying indoors and closing up the house and creating a sealed “safe room” for those who are sensitive to poor air quality.
Longtime Ocean View resident John Noecker was one of a handful of attendees wearing a respirator or dust mask. He told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser the recent vog inundation is the worst he’s experienced in his 40 years there. Noecker, 66, has been feeling nauseated and has difficulty breathing.
“I’ve been contemplating moving, and that’s hard to do after 40 years,” he said.
Other tips offered by Peard: If using an air conditioner to keep the space cool, be sure to switch to recirculation mode, he said. If relying on an air purifier, make sure it is a HEPA room air cleaner with both particulate and acid gas filters.
Checking various vog-tracking websites will assist residents in knowing when vog is on the way so they can seal up the house or a room ahead of time, providing four to eight hours of cleaner air.
As for water catchment systems, DOH recommended temporarily disconnecting gutters that feed into the tank, and not reconnecting the system until the ash and debris have been washed out.
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