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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 1, 2010

Maui residents question DLNR chief on artificial reef accident

By Chris Hamilton
Maui News

KIHEI Maui coral reef lovers came looking for answers Tuesday night from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources about an accident in which state officials and private contractors dropped 125 concrete slabs onto the Keawakapu artificial reef.

About 50 residents, many of whom identified themselves as scuba divers and marine biologists, attended an often emotional meeting at Kamalii Elementary School. The informational meeting was led by DLNR Chairwoman Laura Thielen.

The meeting was the first of several public meetings to determine the best course of action to rectify the mistake as well as create a permanent advisory board to prevent such an incident from happening again, Thielen told audience members.

In the interim, she said she's canceled the artificial reef program.

"What happened? What happened?" asked Native Hawaiian cultural expert and longtime Makena resident Leslie Kuloloio, after a "brief incident history" presentation by state officials. "I call it a failure. .. Job lousy done. Don't ever do that again. It's an insult to the culture."

Another 1,400 of the donated "Z" slabs fell safely to the sandy or algae-covered bottom during the Dec. 2 operation conducted by DLNR experts and a barge owned by a state-hired contractor, American Marine Corp. Within several years, the concrete slabs are expected to be covered in live coral and marine life, but the damaged and now shaded areas may take much longer to revive, if at all, state officials said.

The concrete "modules" were placed in a 5-acre area within the 52-acre Keawakapu artificial reef, according to an independent preliminary report on the accident recently issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Again and again, testifiers asked how could could those sinking the modules could have missed the mark and allowed so many 1.3-ton concrete slabs fall onto what was healthy coral reef. Some called it "heartbreaking."

"Why didn't you send out divers during it?" shouted one man who then bolted angrily from the school cafeteria.

People also wanted to know if the contractor would be held financially liable for its part. A representative from American Marine Co. was not on the 10-member panel assembled by Thielen to answer questions.

Thielen said the DLNR has found an independent investigator who has agreed to determine what happened and why. That investigation will include figuring out whether American Marine is financially responsible. It will also include a complete assessment of the damage, she said.

DLNR aquatic experts said that, at the time of the accident, the barge was riding on rough water. It was murky, too, and those sinking the slabs could not see the bottom about 60 to 120 feet below. The Keawakapu reef is made up of 150 cars, a sunken ship, 35 other concrete slabs and thousands of tires. Half the artificial reef is covered in self-sustaining live coral.

"I would want to wait for the investigation report before saying much more," Thielen said in an interview yesterday. "But I anticipate that one of the concerns may be the amount of predrop underwater surveying done and the conditions at the time."

She said that the flat, lipped shape of the slaps also may have caused them to glide off course as they were dumped overboard. She said the depths were too great to put into place the modules one by one using cable, a technique done in the past.

Diver Steve Scott said he watched the dumping from shore in disbelief. The barge operator, he said, was shoving the slabs off the vessel's side with all the delicacy used in pushing garbage over a hillside with a bulldozer at the landfill.

"I wanted to call the DLNR or the police or EMS," Scott said.

Audience members were asked what of the three solutions to the incident they preferred: do nothing and let it heal itself; do a partial removal of slaps that did the most damage; or remove all 125 of them. She said there are risks involved with the last two solutions, to both divers and reef.

The audience appeared unable to come to a consensus on what route the state should, several saying it should be left to the experts.

On the Net:

Read the complete story in the Maui News: http://www.mauinews.com/page/content.detail/id/530061.html?nav=10

View the Keawakapu preliminary injury assessment: www.hawaii.gov/dlnr/dar/pdf/keawakapu.pdf.