WAILUKU – Three years after it banned using water from the Hamakuapoko Wells for human consumption, the Maui County Council is considering tapping the wells for emergencies.
The wells are contaminated with pesticides, but county water and state health officials have said treatment removes the chemicals to undetectable levels and makes the water safe to drink. Water Director Jeff Eng said Tuesday that if the council allowed the wells to be used as a backup during times of drought or other emergencies, it would allow the county to issue several hundred water meters from the Pookela Wells to residents who have been waiting for water Upcountry.
The council’s Water Resources Committee met Tuesday to discuss a bill that would allow the wells to be used to supplement water Upcountry during drought conditions. Committee Chairman Mike Victorino said he would plan on holding one or more public meetings Upcountry to provide more information and gather input from residents.
Already the proposal seems to have stirred up the heated debate heard in the months before the council voted in 2006 to prohibit the county from using the wells.
Opponents have said the agricultural chemicals, which include nitrates and the pesticide DBCP previously used to treat pineapple fields, are linked to cancers and birth defects. They argue that treatment could leave trace amounts of the chemicals in the water, and that scientists don’t know how the different chemicals could react together to produce different effects.
Board of Water Supply Chairman Michael Howden said the county should look for clean water sources.
"Do you really trust that our science, which is inaccurate at best and oriented to public consumption, is going to give you the truth about these deeply toxic chemicals?" he asked.
But Kula protea farmer Richard Pohle, who has organized a group of Upcountry homeowners on the county’s waiting list for water meters, said critics should stop panicking people with "wild claims."
He said the council should listen to scientists and regulators on whether the water is safe.
"Either the wells are polluted or they’re not," he said. "If they’re not polluted, then why not use them all the time?"
Eng said several other water sources around the state had the same agricultural chemicals present, some with even higher levels than Hamakuapoko, and had been used for drinking water with no complaints. On Maui, wells in Napili and Kaanapali have similar contaminants.
Eng said the granular activated carbon filter used to treat the well water "removes all the contaminants" and produces water that easily meets drinking water standards of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health.
"It’ll treat it down to a level that is not detectable," he said.
But he noted the filters must be replaced every 18 months or so, at a cost of $120,000 to $150,000.
"It is fairly costly," he said.
That cost would now be covered by Maui Land & Pineapple Co. and chemical companies under a 1999 legal settlement, which expires in 2039.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.