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EPA To Clear Lead-Contaminated Soil in Kalihi

Hawaii Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
A map of risk of lead exposure across the state between 2011 and 2017.

Work on Factory Street in Kalihi addressing high lead levels in the soil is scheduled to start later this month. The project, run by the Environmental Protection Agency, will take three to four weeks to complete.

To protect the community from contamination while conducting the excavation, EPA will be monitoring the air and managing the dust with water. The EPA urged people in the area to take extra precautions by closing windows, staying away from the work area and washing their hands often.

Lead is a health hazard, especially for children. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that exposure to lead can cause serious damage to children's developing brains.

Fenix Grange, a supervisor at Hawaii Department of Health Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response (HEER) office, said that the soil with very high levels of lead will be sent to a hazardous waste facility on the Mainland. A small amount of soil with lower levels of contaminants may be disposed of in Hawaii. However, the EPA has not yet determined where that will be.

Lead contamination on Factory Street has been a health problem since the early 1990s.

The HEER office first discovered the issue in the 1993 after children in the area were reported with elevated blood lead levels. 

HEER took samples of soil that showed high concentrations of lead. The contaminated areas were paved over and both the EPA and the Health Department determined there was no longer a risk to residents in the area.

In 2016, HEER reopened the case after it determined that the pavement in the area was degrading, exposing soil that could still be contaminated with lead. After a 2017 assessment, HEER confirmed lead contamination in the area.

The Board of Water Supply collected soil samples from area water meters and valve boxes and determined that some showed soil lead concentrations that exceeded the Health Department's acceptable levels.

Because there are no surface storm water drainage systems in the area, BWS suspected the contamination came from water runoff from the street with the lead-tainted soil. After the assessment, BWS removed the contaminated soil in its water meters and valve boxes and replaced it with clean soil.

Kalihi-Palama Neighborhood Board member Amanda Ybanez remains concerned about the quality of water in the community.

“Because of all the rain and erosion, that could seep into the water system,” she said. “I feel like there needs to be more done -- how far does the lead contaminate the water system?”

Earlier this year, the Health Department contacted the EPA asking for help to address the lead contamination. Grange explained the two-year delay in seeking assistance was due to the difficulty in finding the Factory Street landowner.

“We immediately began trying to figure out who the property owner was, working with the city, etcetera, to determine who owned the road,” she said. “It turns out to be complicated because that road was abandoned so it doesn’t have a property owner. So the Department of Health took an emergency action in 2017 to pave the potholes.”

She said the department contacted the EPA after exhausting all other options.

Kalihi-Palama Neighborhood Board member Jacob Aki pointed to the general neglect of Kalihi roads as a cause of concern — especially when it comes to lead contamination.

“In our community, there’s been a lack of maintenance of these roads . . . you have many roads that are going unmaintained. The conditions are getting worse and worse,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if other roads were . . . found to have soil, as well, that was exposed to lead.”

According to data from the Hawaii Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program collected between 2011 and 2017, Kalihi was rated among the “highest risk” areas for lead exposure.

Kelly Hoffman, an epidemiology specialist with the program, explained that poverty and the age of housing are two of the biggest factors that dictate risk of lead exposure. Children between one and two-years-old are the most vulnerable.

“We say ages one and two because that’s generally when children are at the highest risk for lead exposure because they are still putting everything in their mouth, but they are a little bit more mobile, they’re crawling around,” she said.

The number of children tested in Hawaii for elevated blood lead levels has been dropping since 2016. In 2018, .96% of children tested had elevated blood lead levels compared to 1.23% in 2017 and 1.45% in 2016.

Hoffman emphasized the need to gather more data about children's lead exposure. Currently, only those using Medicaid are required to test their children for blood lead levels.

“We need more children to be tested because it helps us to find the actual overall prevalence of lead exposure in Hawaii. If we don’t have the numbers then it’s hard for us to look at those trends,” she said.

Ashley Mizuo is the government reporter for Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact her at amizuo@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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