Mayor Bissen: Olowalu won’t be final site of Lahaina fire debris, but should remain temporary site

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Proposed Olowalu fire debris disposal site (Oct. 23, 2023) PC: DLNR Hawaiʻi.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen “promised” Thursday that Olowalu will not be the final site for the estimated 400,000 cubic yards of fire debris to be removed from the Lahaina burn zone.

But during the same County Council committee meeting on Thursday, Bissen also said he stands behind his controversial decision to use that West Maui location — near the ocean and Olowalu reef, and along Honoapi’ilani Highway — as the temporary debris site.

“This is the most urgent issue we are facing right now in an effort to return our survivors to their property as well as a safe way to handle this debris,” he said. “Every day we delay this process is one more day survivors must put their lives on hold.”

Bissen got emotional when he emphasized the priority of removing the debris, which must be done before rebuilding can begin.

“Right now, we have over 12,000 people whose lives have been forever changed by these Lahaina wildfires and close to 7,000 who have been living in hotels for nearly six months,” he said. “… I’ve seen the pain in their tears. Every day as the challenges press on, the people of Lahaina — our own people — are leaving this island.”


Thursday’s meeting of the council’s Disaster, Resilience, International Affairs and Planning Committee was a continuation of its 10-hour meeting on Tuesday to discuss Bill 120, which would provide authorization for FEMA, the US Army Corps of Engineers and their contractors to continue to use Olowalu as a temporary debris site for at least another year.

The Tuesday meeting went so long, with about seven hours of passionate public testimony, that it had to be continued on Thursday.

Protests and an online petition also have been held against using Olowalu as both a temporary and permanent debris site, with people and groups concerned about public safety and environmental damage from toxins and hazardous material contained within the debris.

Lahaina fire waste protest (12.26.23) Photo credit: Sarah Betcher / Farthest North Films /

At a December community meeting, Shayne Agawa, county director of environmental management, said Olowalu was the “proposed” permanent site for the debris after looking at eight options.

The US Environmental Protection Agency already has shipped off island all the toxic and hazardous materials, including batteries from electric vehicles and solar battery systems, that it collected. But there is still plenty left behind, including in unsafe buildings that the EPA could not go into. The Army Corps will remove what it can from these buildings.


But there will be toxins and hazardous material that will be impossible to completely separate from the rest of the debris, the Army Corps said.

The County Council passed first reading of Bill 120 in December and will vote on the second and final reading on Jan. 12.

The Army Corps already has been building the temporary debris site at Olowalu on state-owned land under a 90-day emergency authorization that the council passed on Oct. 27.

If the council passes Bill 120 on Jan. 12, phase 2 debris removal from Lahaina will begin on Jan. 13, the Army Corps said.

“If it doesn’t [pass], everything comes to a halt,” explained Councilmember Tamara Paltin, chair of the committee.


Bissen said his selection criteria for Olowalu as the temporary debris site was based on several factors, including its eight-mile proximity to Lahaina, which lessens the potential for traffic, safety concerns and potential spills.

While there are public concerns brought up as the result of drone footage that showed a possible heaiu (ancient Hawaiian temple) on the site, Bissen said the State Historic Preservation Division has reviewed the site and confirmed that no cultural or historical sites have been disturbed.

He added that the US Fish and Wildlife Service were consulted to ensure there were no
significant environmental concerns and that a FEMA environmental and historic preservation specialist had cleared the site of any concerns.

Bissen also said it is important to get the debris into a contained area before it can do more damage to public health and the environment.

Dr. Corey Koger, debris subject matter expert and chemist from the Army Corps, said the containment system at the temporary site includes a protective liner and a geotextile membrane, with two feet of dirt put on top of it, which is similar to a landfill system.

He said the protective “burrito” wrap is placed on the debris, which is also sprayed with water, before transport. Koger said it is “analogous to when you take your trash out in a trash bag.”

A long discussion was held to explain why it was not practical to put the debris in 40-foot containers. With that much debris, Bob Fenton, the lead FEMA official for the Maui recovery, said it would take 12,121 containers due to weight limits and take up 100 acres of land.

Bissen said it is possible that some of the Lahaina debris could go directly to the final debris site. But finding and building a permanent site for the massive amount of debris will take at least a year, with a process that includes land acquisition, design and construction, said Josiah Nishita, deputy managing director of Maui County.

The most likely permanent spot will be in Central Maui near the current landfill, which county officials say already is nearing capacity and cannot house the Lahaina fire debris.

The estimated amount of this debris would fill nearly five football fields filled 50 feet high, or five stories. It is about two years worth of debris that now enters the Maui landfill, the county said.

It does not include another estimated 200,000 cubic yards of concrete and metals that will be recycled.

Nishita emphasized there is no optimal location on Maui, saying: “There’s going to be negative consequences to whatever final disposition site is selected.”

As an example, trucking the debris to Central Maui would require about 40,000 roundtrip semi-truck loads — or 133 truck loads daily, running 7 days a week, for more than 300 days.

And while FEMA will pay 90% or more of the tipping fees for the debris at its final site, it will not pay for the building of the site. That cost, which will be in the tens of millions, will be the responsibility of Maui County. And it does not include the cost to deal with the wear and tear on the roads and to the trucks for the debris transport, Nishita said.

But for now, Bissen said everyone should share in the urgency of removing the debris from Lahaina and returning survivors to their property “while keeping everyone safe and allowing them to start the long road of rebuilding their lives.”


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