It bites: Alien species such as the piranha can play havoc with Hawaii's ecosystem.
Should it take a special occasion--Earth Day--to get you concerned about the environment? We consulted a handful of local experts to put together a short list of important Island issues, from in-house air pollution to alien-species invasions. The next move is yours.
April 16-22, 1997. Honolulu Weekly
Most discussions on environmentalism tend to take one of two dominant approaches. One focuses on large- scale disasters, often bolstered by grim reports on the 6 o'clock news ("how do you stop the killer bees?"); we're left feeling powerless and ineffectual.Danger Lurks in the Man-Made Environment
Another presents an individualized view ("you are an environmentalist sinner"); this approach is favored by many non-profits, barred for financial reasons from taking a comprehensive political approach. The problem here is the view's too simplified; it leaves us feeling that if we just, say, recycle, all our environmental problems could be solved. (And if we all said "please" and "Thank you" more often, we'd achieve world peace, too.)
Both these approaches tend to artificially dichotomize environmental affairs, when in fact they are not completely within or completely out of any one person's control.
More realistically, environmental issues exist on a continuum, that ranges from the personal to the political and back again.
This story is intended to put some of the environmental pieces back together, to present what some of our most pressing environmental problems are here, to show what's being done (or isn't being done) about them at various levels, to encourage you to consider what you think could be done, and to inspire you to action.
From individual actions to organizational activity, from indoor air problems to corporate polluters, all affect the health of Hawaii's ecosystems and its people. Get informed and get involved.Bruce Anderson, the state's deputy director for environmental health at the Department of Health, says many people don't realize that the most serious environmental threats in Hawaii may attack them in their own living rooms. Although he doesn't deny there are serious risks to ecosystems here, he feels public opinion and budget allocations don't adequately address some of our most pressing environmental health risks.Stopping the Pollution Business
According to Anderson, "The problem is that Congress and our state lawmakers enact laws in response to public concern or outrage, not necessarily [to] real risks." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came up with this same conclusion in a 1987 study.
In 1993, Anderson asked scientists, engineers and other environmental health professionals to conduct an "Environmental Risk Ranking Study" for Hawaii. They analyzed existing data, and ranked risks to both sensitive ecosystems and environmental human health for the state.
Their findings indicate that one of our biggest environmental problems is indoor air pollution. Building materials often expose us to hazardous substances such as formaldehyde; with poor ventilation and recycled air (air-conditioning, that is), the problem can be magnified. Solutions? Scrutinize your home for hazardous materials, especially if it's an older model, and make sure your ventilation system is adequate.
Also in the high risk category is exposure to lead. "I have no doubt that the most serious human health threat to the children of Hawaii is exposure to lead," Anderson says. Typical sources are house dust, dirt, paint containing lead and drinking water gathered from rooftop catchments. The lead-based paints commonly found in older homes contain as much as 50 percent lead.
Two to three percent of Hawaii's children under five years of age have high levels of lead in their blood, which may cause serious nervous system damage, leaning disabilities and behavioral disorders. The effects are permanent.
"So here's where we are," says Anderson. "Regulators are trying to implement the latest law, scientists continue to haggle over risk management and the public is struggling to understand what all this means for them and their families."
Anderson is hopeful that more people will come to understand the severity of these environmental health threats.
In 1993, neither the state nor the federal government operated an indoor air pollution program. Today, there is a small, state-operated indoor air pollution and lead poisoning public education program. These days, however, Anderson worries that the program may not survive the next round of budget cuts.
The United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) takes an activist approach to environmental and social issues. Daniel Hayward. and Paul Brenner, local campaign co-directors for U.S. PIRG, want to get the message across that clean air and water can be connected to corporate responsibility--or lack thereof.
U.S. PIRG currently is working to expose Island violations of the Federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts. The group also has an interest in your exposure to dangerous substances in your home environment: It's involved in a "Toxics Right To Know Campaign," urging lawmakers to require that industries inform citizens about the kinds of toxic chemicals used in products and emitted into their communities.
Hawaii is not a heavily industrialized state; as a result, it has fewer major violations to clean water and air standards than other states. Yet, Hayward states that Hawaii's agricultural and military sectors are major sources of pollution. An annual EPA Toxic Release Study determined that 600 tons of toxic chemicals were released into Hawaii's air, ground and water in 1991.
Here's a situation where knowledge is power. But powerful interests oppose the federal Toxics-Right-to-Know law. U.S. PlRG is playing a David vs. Goliath game, with citizen's participation at stake.
Accidental Tourists? The Invasion of Alien Species
Governor Ben Cayetano recently used Hawaii's first annual "Environmental Report Card" to argue for increased regulatory funding. The report card shoed an overall grade of "B-"; it's based on information compiled by the 15-member Environmental Council, appointed by the Governor. The state earned a "C-" for native species protection and a "C" for environmental funding.One of the top concerns for ecosystem-oriented environmentalists in Hawaii today is the invasion of alien species. Alan Holt of the Nature Conservancy explains, "it's not condos, bulldozers or pollution that cause the most problems. Invasion of alien species and pest species are the number one cause of the eradication of [native] species, bar none. The problem is big already, but it has gotten much worse lately, and it is getting worse all the time."
Pest species kill or compete with native species; their introduction threatens the ecosystem and biodiversity. Alien invaders affect our entire economy, environment and way of life. If an alien insect species attacks the papaya tree for example, that puts farmers out of work--or they have to use more pesticides. If an invader harms a plant such as taro, it contributes to the eradication of a culture.
Holt says that naturally a new alien species would be introduced here about once every 10 thousand years. Now a new alien species is detected - once every 18 days.
How does this happen? Hawaii is a transportation hub as well as a resort destination spot. Alien species can "stow away" on aircraft and in cargo. Visitors and residents sometimes bring in hazardous plants through Mainland companies.
The brown tree snake, which Holt calls the "poster child" of alien invaders, has been successfully kept out of Hawaii so far, but since the 1970's, seven brown tree snakes have been found in cargo bound for or docked in Hawaii.
Hawaii has an exceptionally vulnerable environment. Holt feels that Hawaii agencies involved with pest species control are effective, but that gaps between their services may leave opportunities for alien species to establish themselves. He advocates for bigger, better educational programs, and for continued support for programs to detect and control the invaders.
Bye Bye Fishies: The Decimation of Ocean Populations
Water, Water Everywhere
Most of our drinking water remains relatively clean and safe. But the supply is shrinking. Statistics on supply and consumption indicate that we have only 35 years of adequate drinking water, says the Department of Land and Natural Resources' chief, Michael Wilson. Where will we get our drinking water in the future? It's a serious problem for the Islands. At present, there is no official program attempting to control the rate of water use or to encourage conservation; it is clear that, at the very least, we need to do this.Michael Wilson, chief of the state's Department of Land and Natural Resources, takes a dismal view: "Hawaii's bottom fisheries are being decimated, our native marine species are being threatened by the introduction of exotic species, and a take-all-you-can-get' public consumption attitude--whether it concerns tropical fish or lobster--prevails," he says.Chemical Soup
"Our bottom fisheries are on the verge of collapse. For example, two of Hawaii's most valuable commercial fish species--ehu and onaga--have been overfished to the point where their potential to reproduce is so low that the fishery will be lost if immediate action is not taken. This industry alone is worth over 2.5 million dollars annually."
As we reported earlier ("Year of the Reef," HW, 12/4/96), Island corals and the species that depend on their existence are also threatened. Wilson confirms this: "We know that there has been reef damaged by run-off from agricultural and developed lands, pollution and overfishing," he says. "The disappearance of coral would result in massive erosion of the shoreline."
The annual economic value of our coral reefs is $400 million, Wilson estimates, when tourism, recreation and fishing are taken into account.
Another problem: the incidental capture of species such as albatross and sea turtles as a by-product of commercial and recreational fishing activities. Drifting, unattended fishing nets are a major culprit, and have been condemned by Wilson.
It seems logical that the state could play a major role in addressing these issues and preventing further damage.
What?s in the water? Unfortunately, the answer too often is: pesticides, oil, trash and silt.Urban Sprawl and Development Strife
"Once [the water] is contaminated, it's very hard to bring it back:" says the health department's Anderson, explaining that pesticide residues can leach into the ground water, which "is vulnerable to contamination. ...Some pesticides we are finding in the water were banned 20 years ago."
Anderson says water quality does not rank as high as a health threat, but problems persist: State Department of Health monitors routinely find traces of termite-killing chemicals in the water. These chemicals can accumulate in animals, fish and sometimes groundwaters.
Many streams are starting to show stress, some becoming like a "sink for chemicals," Anderson says.
According to at least one study, the Manoa and Palolo streams are the most polluted in the country. Where do these streams end up? The Ala Wai Canal, which is a catch basin for the Makiki, Manoa, Palolo, Kapahulu and Waikiki watersheds.
Concrete-lined streams, such as the waterway in Manoa, add to the silting of the Ala Wai; these "channelized" streams simply funnel sediment and silt downstream. In effect, they become nothing more than drainage canals. Many streams on Oahu have been concretized in this way.
Compounding the problem is the lack of vegetated "buffer zones" around Island streams. When streams are bordered by soil and plants, runoff is slowed down and flood control increased, chemical pollution is filtered and habitat preserved. But establishing these important buffer zones means limiting development along waterways. A few years ago, Malama O Manoa advocated for more streamside buffer zones in the Manoa Valley, but resistance from landowners and others fearing high costs has stalled the effort.
No sewage goes directly into the Ala Wai, but plenty of polutted runoff is directed there. The Ala Wai also contains very high levels of lead, and many people report getting staph (bacterial) infections from the water.
"The Ala Wai is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the state," says Anderson. "But it is also a sediment catchment, which catches a lot of the pollutants that would otherwise go to the beaches and the ocean." So the Ala Wai's grimy buildup, ironically, serves a beneficial purpose--but at a cost. One problem with the accumulation of sediment in the Ala Wai is that it has reduced water levels, leaving exposed sand bars, which pose hazards for paddlers.
Anderson says there is an immediate need for the Canal to be dredged. But there are at least two issues to consider: where to put the dredged material, and how to catch the pollutants that continue to come down the streams. A larger issue of course, is eliminating the polluted run-off at its various sources. At least one solution is to actively curtail chemical and pesticide use.
"The ocean is definitely not as clean as it was before statehood," the Surfrider Foundation's Peter Cole says. "Even in the past 10 to 15 years, on the North Shore there is brown water after heavy rains. It used to last two to three days, maybe. Now it stays brown for longer and it lingers. Two years ago, after one heavy rain, the brown water lingered for two to three months south of Waimea Bay."Let's go Beach? Loss of Beach Access
Surfrider, in particular, opposes developer Obayashi's Lihi Lami proposal to build housing overlooking the North Shore. Larry McElheny, of the Surfrider Foundation and the Save Sunset Beach Coalition, says, "You can't camouflage luxury homes along that bluff. The loss of open space and aesthetic value that the coastal pali bluff provides would be devastating. The state has misused zoning laws, taking agricultural land and replacing it with a residential development. ?There are statewide implications, and the overdevelopment plans there are indicative of a deeper problem."
Land use laws are a central concern of the Save Sunset Beach Coalition. McElheny, who is president of the SSBC, says, "The politics of how these decisions are made, in my opinion, make a mockery of the laws. This is our number one environmental threat."
He feels that the state is not doing enough to curb development, saying, "The state, by granting authority to the county, is letting people get away with building residential dwellings on those lands. They have a responsibility, a right and an obligation to watch over this, and they are not doing their job. As citizens, we just won't stand for this anymore."
Donna Wong, of the environmental group Hawaii's Thousand Friends, says, "We've got good state land-use laws here, a good system of checks arid balances, but the politics, personalities, Western ideals and money get in the way."
Developing a strong, Island-based and Island-generated economy, with a clear environmental vision, would help protect the land from out of control development, Wong says. "It doesn't matter whether we are in boom or bust economy, the logic used by many legislators is the same--no money? We?ve got to get it. Lots of money? A chance to make more."
Wong believes that we need to use our land more carefully, in culturally and environmentally intelligent ways. "Right now," she says, "we're not doing that. Other than lip service about land-use planning, there's never been any real, sincere recognition that our natural resources are finite."
David Frankel, director of the Sierra Club's Hawaii chapter, feels that a serious threat to Hawaii's environmental quality is encroachment on Island beaches and declining access to public beaches, trails and natural resources.Cutting Corners on Environmental Protection
"Since 1929, we have lost a dozen miles of beach on Oahu, Kauai and Maui through the construction of illegal sea walls," he says. "Access is declining. The examples are numerous: Onamea Bay and Kiholo Bay on the Big Island, West Beach Lagoons and the Wiliwili Nui Trail on Oahu are just a few." Frankel says that people set up gates, fences and security guards to interfere with public access to public places. Most of these hindrances are illegal, but some aren't.
While Hawaii has the fourth longest coastline in the United States, we rank 48th in overall funding for fish and wildlife protection and last spending on environmental protection. A DLNR report states, "As a comparison, Hawaii spends less than the 18 westernmost states, including desert states. Per capita spending for fisheries management is seven times greater Idaho, six times greater in Wyoming, and 52 times greater in Alaska."
This lack of spending has stifled research and preservation programs, and resulted in a lack of staffing education and, notably, for environmental enforcement.
Hawaii has no state program to protect beleagured creatures such as whales, dolphins and the Hawaiian monk seal. In a notorious recent case, the DLNR had to turn back federal money for a progressive research study on one of Hawaii's most misunderstood marine predators, the tiger shark, because the state failed to put up matching funds.
Precious marine resources such as coral continue to be damaged because of inadequate staffing at popular sites and gillnet fishing is virtually unregulated due to a lack of enforcement. The DLNR has only one aquatic biologist assigned to manage all the aquatic resources on the Big Island. There are only 18 enforcement officers assigned to protect Hawaii's marine resources, and DLNR's Wilson believes there should be a licensing system for recreational fishers. These statistics can only improve if legislators recognize that funding for programs is an investment in Hawaii's future.
Waste not, Want not? Garbage and Waste Management
Tamar Cholzen of the Hawaii Nature Center sees children every day who have never been in the wilderness and "have never been able to develop a relationship with the natural world. It's easier for them to go to the mall."
In an increasing urbanized and overdeveloped Hawaii, an artificial environment envelopes our kids. But environmentalists have responded, developing programs for youth. The Hawaii Nature Center's programs have a waiting list of 10,000 children every year.
Youth for Environmental Service is directed at encouraging teenagers to get involved in volunteer environmental activities. There is plenty of work to do: Coordinator Brian Schatz reports that YES organized teen volunteers in 41 different projects in April alone, including trail maintenance, tree planting, beach clean-ups, wildlife sanctuary restoration and storm rain stenciling.Suzanne Jones, the City and County of Honolulu's recycling coordinator, says the decisions we make in Hawaii on how we handle our garbage affect the availability of land, energy and raw materials. "Our goal as recyclers is to reduce and reuse," she says. "How we do this is a key question, and unfortunately many people feel it's something that is beyond their control."Get Involved!
The state takes a three-pronged approach to waste management, with the H-Power Plant as its central program, and recycling and composting as the other components.
Jones explains that the H-Power Plant, operational since 1990, is a waste-to-energy and recycling plant that reduces our landfill waste by 90 percent. The garbage is incinerated at the plant, and the electricity produced is sold to Hawaiian Electric Company. Metals are recovered and recycled. Glass, paper and plastic should be sorted out and recycled, rather than dumped in the trash. Yard waste can be deposited at various city locations for composting.
We have a long way to go in terms of using less. The City's recycling programs are largely directed at businesses in particular, office buildings, restaurants and hotels, where there are now mandatory recycling procedures. But questions remain about the efficiency of our recycling programs for individuals.
The good news is this: A wide variety of concerned citizens groups share your concerns. Try these contacts for a start:
City and County of Honolulu Recycling Programs
Environment Hawaii Newsletter
Youth for Environmental Service
Hawaii Nature Center
Hawaii U.S. PIRG
Hawaii's Thousand Friends
Save Sunset Beach Coalition
State Department of Health
State Department of Land and Natural Resources
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