LAHAINA — More than a week after the nation’s deadliest wildfire in over a century burned across West Maui, the U.S. Coast Guard has begun shifting its response focus from search and rescue to minimizing impacts on the region’s marine environment.
Most immediately, their new efforts are focused on Lahaina’s marina, where several sunken boats have spilled oil into nearshore waters.
“There was a pretty significant amount of oil and fuel in the vessels in the marina there and near the outside of it,” said U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team Lieutenant Trent Brown.
While assessments are still ongoing, toxic materials released from the sunken boats’ batteries are also a point of concern for the strike team.
Additionally, as storms are expected to hit Maui in the coming days, the team worries that surface runoff could pick up additional hazardous waste from the burn sites, potentially adding even more toxic substances to nearshore waters.
“We don’t know what was in those houses, and a lot of times when things burn and when they mix together, they can form other things that can be dangerous,” Brown said.
To keep this post-combustion cocktail out of offshore waters, the Coast Guard and partnering organizations have installed what are known as containment booms around the area’s storm drain outflows. Consisting of floating plastic barriers tied to an anchor, the booms limit halt the movement of oil and other contaminants.
“Since the oil floats, it hits the boom, and the boom is able to contain the oil in whatever environment,” Brown explained.
These harder plastic booms are usually paired with a softer outer boom that can absorb oil while keeping water out.
While the Coast Guard has used this dual-boom pair to keep surface runoff out of the marina, they have mostly been used to keep oil spills within the marina — or more specifically, to keep the oil from reaching West Maui’s cherished coral reefs.
“Keeping those reefs safe is one of our higher priorities,” Brown said. “I know that’s a very valuable natural resource here in the Hawaiian Islands, and that’s what all that boom is there for — to try to minimize any impacts for those reefs, either from physical debris or sorts of toxic chemicals.”
Booming off the marina hasn’t solved the Coast Guard’s coral concerns, though. Brown told The Garden Island that multiple vessels beyond the marina — including a submarine and a tugboat — were also sunk during the fire.
“Those we’re a little more concerned about,” Brown said. “Those we’re taking action on … Some of those are sitting on some reefs and other critical habitats, so that’s another reason we’re prioritizing a way to get them out of there safely.”
Brown explained that as the Coast Guard moves further into its response, a top priority will be to remove these boats from the water, although doing so will require additional planning and funds.
“By the time we get our resources out there to start recovering these vessels, I think it could take two to three weeks,” he said. “But that’s once we get to the start line, and I wouldn’t even consider us even being there yet.”
Still, Brown emphasized that he and the Pacific Strike Team are doing everything they can to quickly and safely clean West Maui’s waters.
“The Coast Guard is obviously aware that this is a very tragic event,” he said, “and hopefully we can get Lahaina back to a safe spot from an environmental perspective as soon as we can.”
Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or email@example.com.
Source: The Garden Island