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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, March 14, 2005

Maui landscape becoming parking lot for abandoned cars

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

WAILUKU, Maui — When teams of volunteers roamed the back roads of Maui in search of mosquito-breeding sites in the war against dengue fever three years ago, they discovered dozens of rural fields pockmarked by old, broken-down cars, some with as many as 200 vehicles.

Abandoned cars, like this one off Old Haleakala Highway in Pukalani, have increasingly littered Maui's roadsides and rural fields.

Timothy Hurley • The Honolulu Advertiser

Not only are the abandoned cars still there, but the problem of derelict vehicles on Maui's roadsides and in rural landscapes has only grown worse, said Jan Dapitan, chief of the Community Work Day Program, a litter cleanup organization.

"It's a huge problem," Dapitan said.

It's a situation exacerbated by Maui County's troubled derelict-vehicle removal program, which has been limping along over the past year after the state Department of Health shut down the county's former scrap-metal contractor for not meeting solid-waste standards.

The county has been trying to find a replacement contractor, but those efforts have been thwarted by regulatory obstacles and legal challenges.

Left without a qualified contractor to remove hazardous waste and crush junk cars and other scrap-metal items, the program has floundered. Existing vehicle storage areas are jammed full, and abandoned cars are being left where they sit.

With the situation at a critical stage, the Maui County Council on Friday dipped into county savings to provide an additional $825,000 to help process more than 1,000 vehicles now stored at the closed Waikapu Landfill, and to process old appliances and abandoned vehicles from the roadsides for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Mayor Alan Arakawa said his staff is working to help a new scrap-metal salvaging contractor come into compliance with land-use laws and hopefully the program can restart soon.

But the contractor, Mike Kitagawa, owner of Kitagawa's Towing & Transport, said he's been told that it could take another six months to get a needed special management area use permit. He plans to handle, store, crush and dispose of derelict vehicles on 2.7 acres near Kahului Harbor.

Maui's junk-car woes accelerated last year after the Health Department ordered the previous contractor, Maui Scrap Metal Co. in Waikapu, to halt operations until it complies with solid-waste rules. Among other things, the state wants Maui Scrap Metal to remove hazardous materials such as motor oil and other fluids from cars on concrete slabs rather than bare dirt.

The company, which was fined $202,900 for operating three years without a valid permit, remains ineligible to handle vehicles and continues to appeal the department's action.

That was only the beginning of the program's recent troubles.

With no one to process vehicles, the county began a formal search for a new contractor. But the request-for-proposal process was halted when one of the bidders protested and formally appealed. The appeal continues to be fought in court.

With still no place to process vehicles, the county began storing clunkers at the old Waikapu Landfill. But that was stopped after the Health Department issued a warning.

Then in October, county officials decided they couldn't wait for the appeal process to play out. They went to bid again, pointing out that having a working program in place sooner rather than later was in the best interest of the health and welfare of the county's residents.

The county chose Kitagawa — apparently the only one of a handful of bidders to meet all of the requirements — and even issued a purchase order to start processing vehicles. But a losing bidder appealed in December, saying Kitagawa didn't meet the minimum land-use requirements. County planners agreed, and ordered Kitagawa to obtain a permit required of projects near the shore.

"All of a sudden a brick wall came in front of me," Kitagawa said.

Kitagawa, a former gas station owner, said he's eager to start work and do it using environmentally friendly techniques. Among other things, he said he plans to use a unique powdered absorbent with microbes that breaks down motor oil. Use of the substance is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The plan also includes setting up a crusher to turn old cars into blocks of metal ready to be shipped off island.

"I plan to approach this in a professional and environmentally efficient way," he said. "I do not want to make the land pilau."

Kitagawa said the permit process could last anywhere from two weeks to six months, depending on what requirements emerge from the land-use process. Arakawa said his staff is trying to push the permit along as quickly as possible.

A long-term solution, including a proposal to build a storage and processing facility on 10 acres in Pu'unene, will be discussed during upcoming budget discussions, officials said.

In the meantime, junked cars continue to be left to deteriorate on Maui's roadsides and in fields.

"It's a serious issue," said Dapitan, the litter pickup leader. "There's got to be a solution. If we can't handle this problem, how are we going to handle the more complex ones?"

Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880 or thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.