Construction Boom Threatens Maui's Pristine Sand

Maui's pristine beaches and vast inland sand dune system are threatened as a booming construction industry digs out tons of sand to mix for concrete. Jesse Hardman reports on the the fight on the popular Hawaiian island over the precious resource.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. The Hawaiian island of Maui is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and Hawaii's economy depends on the tourist industry. The beaches are the big draw for tourists, but Jesse Hardman reports there's also some inland sand that is a big part of Maui's economy.

JESSE HARDMAN reporting:

Rob Parsons follows a makeshift dirt trail through old junkyards filled with the rusting carcasses of cars. He stops before the trail falls into an enormous ravine.

Mr. ROB PARSONS (Environment Coordinator, Maui County): We can see the magnificent 30 foot to 40 foot tall dunes of pure, golden sand. We're also in the face of the breeze of the trade winds that brought the sand here tens of thousands of years ago.

HARDMAN: In the three years since he was appointed Maui County's first ever environmental coordinator, Parsons has gotten to know this spot pretty well. It's what's left of the Onehe`e Dunes, a sprawling inland sand deposit that used to cover the belt of land that his central Maui. Over the last 50 years, these dunes have been gradually covered by housing and commercial developments. The sand has also been mined and used as a key ingredient in cement coveted by concrete companies for its smoothness.

Rob Parsons says more than 2 million tons of inland sand is excavated every year, and the majority of it isn't even used locally, but gets shipped off to Honolulu.

Mr. PARSONS: In fiscal year '04, the Harbor Master said the sand barge left Kahului for Oahu 61 times. The following year, fiscal year '05, it left 96 times. To me, that's a dramatic and even shocking increase.

HARDMAN: But a new report predicts even bigger problems for the dunes and those who covet them. Commissioned by Maui County, the report says, in five to six years, what's left of the island's dunes will be covered or dug out. This news means concrete companies will take a hit, but it may be even more troubling to Maui's biggest industry, tourism, because these same dunes are an ideal source to replenish local beaches, which by some estimates are eroding at a rate of one foot per year.

(Soundbite of a man shouting)

HARDMAN: On Maui's east side Baldwin Beach, Neil Waikiki(ph) shouts encouragement as his fellow lifeguards go through training.

(Soundbite of man shouting)

HARDMAN: Waikiki says beach recession makes his job tougher, exposing dangerous reefs and making swim conditions more precarious.

Mr. NEIL WAIKIKI (Lifeguard): People forget the old style days, you know, when everything was the way it should be, when the sand was up higher. It just gets a little bit riskier and all.

HARDMAN: Because of the considerable power and holdings of developers and cement companies, those who want to preserve the remaining dunes worry they don't stand a chance. But they have a new friend in first-term Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa, who recently made news when he asked the county council to consider a moratorium on exporting inland sand.

Mayor ALAN ARAKAWA (Maui County): The reality is that we've been abusing the environment for a lot of years, and now it's come time to pay the piper. When you overuse a resource, at some point you run out.

HARDMAN: To local Hawaiian Charlie Maxwell, who traces his roots back generations, the dunes are just the latest in a long list of bad headlines. Surveying what used to be miles of dunes from a local hillside, Maxwell says this sandy area was a favorite spot for traditional Hawaiian burials. As head of Maui County's Burial Council, he's used the discovery of ancient remains as grounds for stopping dune excavations and development. But he says that only slows down the inevitable.

Mr. CHARLIE MAXWELL (Director, Maui County Burial Council): I'm sad because it looks like no matter what I've tried, it wasn't enough. Modern man has come along and just taken over, built in every place they can.

HARDMAN: The Maui County Council is considering a moratorium on sand exports. Next November, the council and Mayor Arakawa are up for reelection. Environmental issues like the inland dunes are expected to have a big impact when it comes time to vote. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman on Maui.

CHADWICK: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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