Good Reason To Avoid The Ocean

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - January 26, 2011
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Barbara Billand with a handful of medical waste found on Nimitz Beach

A month ago I candidly wrote about my decision to paddle in contaminated waters off Kailua Beach following a big storm.

The state Department of Health had issued a brown water advisory for the area while the city had posted warning signs urging people to stay out of the ocean.

I chose not to heed the warnings and took some well-deserved heat for my decision to “go in anyway.”

Well, there’s something about blood and needles that can grab one’s attention and quickly change their attitude.

The recent storm that pounded Waimanalo Gulch landfill with more than 11 inches of rain exposed a flaw in the landfill’s design and infrastructure. Besides storm runoff, an unknown amount of medical waste traveled through large pipes and emptied into our ocean.

It’s safe to say most Island residents weren’t aware medical waste was allowed at the landfill. But the landfill’s operator, Waste Management, was quick to say all medical waste is sterilized.

Few found comfort in the statement.

The following morning, Waste Management contracted a cleanup crew to hit the shoreline near Ko Olina, where they filled several garbage bags with syringes, vials of blood, needles and other medical waste that had washed ashore.

For the next several days, crews swept beaches from Kahe Point to Maili Point, while the city posted warning signs at beaches and lifeguards kept a close eye on the shoreline. The state health department conducted daily water samples and met with all parties involved including the Environmental Protection Agency.

But you got the feeling this was far from over.

Barbara and Robert Billand certainly felt that way.

The Billands are volunteers with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Response Team. Two days after the initial event, the Billands responded to reports of a monk seal at White Plains near Kalaeloa. When they arrived, they found more than the sleepy creature on the beach.

The medical waste had reached the popular surf spot, and the U.S. Navy quickly closed the beach. A day later, more vials, syringes and needles were found at nearby Nimitz Beach.

The Billands were blown away and angered.

“These are from Nimitz Beach, so it’s not safe anywhere,” says Barbara Billand, holding several plastic bags filled with medical waste. “I wouldn’t jump into the ocean for weeks or maybe months.”

“It’s very bothersome because they had a lot of needles and people can get poked. You don’t know what they have in there,” says Robert Billand, pointing to the vials and syringes. “They say all of this is sterile, but I see liquid in there. I would never go in this water. It’s polluted!”

The city and state say the public has a right to be concerned but assures that Waste Management produced documentation that showed their medical waste was handled properly and was sterilized. But city managing director Doug Chin adds, “That doesn’t mean that it’s not still potentially a public safety crisis in a sense that someone might step on a needle.”

The Billands and others on the beach say more information needed to be shared. Most admit they had a hard time believing the waste is not a public threat.

“It’s still blood, and I don’t like messing around with blood,” says Joshua Lamb of Ewa Beach.

“No, I’m not comfortable,” says Keith Takenouchi of Aiea. “Hazardous waste should be dealt with differently. I don’t believe what they say. It’s contaminated! Blood and needles - I don’t care what, it shouldn’t be just dumped in a field!”

That so much medical waste found its way to our ocean playground is more than enough reason to address the condition and future of the aging and over-taxed landfill.

In the meantime, we’re all faced with making an informed decision to heed the warning signs or not.

The syringes and vials may not be infectious, but when it comes to blood and needles, “going in anyway” is not an option for me - not by a long shot.

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