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Initial water tests for Lahaina, Kula show trace amounts of chemicals

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                                A home burned to ashes is seen in foreground as the sunset colors the sky in Kula on Aug. 15.


    A home burned to ashes is seen in foreground as the sunset colors the sky in Kula on Aug. 15.

The initial water samples tested at Lahaina and Kula following the Maui fires earlier this month have shown just trace amounts of contaminants, although Maui County said an ongoing unsafe water advisory for the areas will stay in place.

At a Kula community meeting this evening John Stufflebean, director for the County of Maui Department of Water Supply, said that there have been trace amounts of chemicals in some water samples, although they fall well under federally set limits.

Most of the other “volatile organic compounds” tested for in water samples in the areas have been undetectable.

“At this point, everything we’ve tested is below the health standard. In fact, almost everything has been (undetectable),” Stufflebean said, but added, “We need to do additional rounds of testing to make sure that it’s safe. We’ve built the foundational testing … but our mission is to make sure the system is safe.”

Stufflebean said trace levels of toluene were found in water samples. On Monday the DWS also said that trace amounts of xylene from a water sample in Upper Kula were found. Additionally, trace amounts of benzene from a sample in Lahaina were detected. All are naturally found in crude oil.

The county is publishing the water test results on its website.

But testing is ongoing, and Stufflebean said it’s unclear how long the unsafe water advisory will last.

“When we find the results, it may lead to additional testing, or it may lead to the point where we can say, ‘Now we can open it up,’” he said. “It can be a couple of weeks, it can be … longer, but we don’t know.”

On Aug. 11 the Maui DWS issued the advisory for Lahaina and Upper Kula, as their water systems may have been damaged by fires, possibly allowing for contamination.

“Due to the Lahaina wildfire, some structures in the Lahaina water system were destroyed by the fire, and some areas in the water system lost pressure,” the DWS said in a Monday update to the advisory. “These conditions may have caused harmful contaminants, including benzene and other (VOCs), to enter the water system.”

The advisory warned the public against drinking or boiling tap water. It was issued as a precautionary measure in the absence of water testing at the time and has been in place since.

The department has also released an unsafe water map for Maui. Residents can enter their address to find out if the water advisory applies to them.

The meeting this evening was hosted by Maui County Council Vice Chair Yuki Lei Sugimura, although it was attended by some of the state’s top leaders following the Maui fires, including Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke and Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen.

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the EPA, the state Department of Health’s Safe Drinking Water Branch and the American Red Cross also attended the meeting.

Sugimura, who lives in and represents the upcountry area, said she wanted to host the public meeting with local and federal leaders because of the confusion surrounding the water supply following the recent Maui fires.

“The frustration is that we never got firm answers,” she said regarding questions about water usage, including some from residents wondering if they should test water themselves.

Though the water tests so far have not shown severe contamination, Stufflebean said that affected residents should still stock up on weeks’ worth of water bottles.

The science of how fires affect water systems is still new, he said, but added that ensuring the water is safe in the Kula area is likely to be an easier task than it will be for Lahaina.

As of Monday, in the Kula area there are water buffalo tankers at Crater Road, Copp Road, the Kula Fire Station, Rice Park, Kula Community Center and Keokea.

Water buffalo tankers are located at Puamana, Kahoma Village, Honokohau in Lahaina. Two water tanks are located at the Lahaina Gateway Shopping Center.

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