After Years of Bureaucracy Getting in the Way, Kauai’s Kilauea River, Wailapa Stream Clean-Up Completed

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BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – KILAUEA, KAUAI – When more than 400 million gallons of water held by the Ka Loko Dam breached on March 14, 2006, eight Kauai residents, including Christine ‘Sunny’ McNees’ unborn child and 2-year-old Rowan Fehring-Dingwall, were swept to their deaths, and an estimated $100 million in private and public property was destroyed.

More than 5 years has passed, and finally, the once vibrant, sparkling river, one of only five navigable rivers on Kauai, that had been filled with potentially toxic metals and waste, along with rotting trees after the breach, has been cleaned up.


The river had been devastated after the the privately-owned dam’s breach swept houses, cars, fuel tanks, appliances, toys, clothes, dishes, and just about everything else found in a home, as well as hundreds of trees, into the Kilauea River, down Wailapa stream and into the ocean below.

Much of the river life died and the bottom turned a slimy black. Sediment from above raised the level of the river bottom from an estimated 9 to 20 feet deep to 1 to 1.5 feet deep in some places.

Soon after the breach, with civil lawsuits pending for the breach against property owners James Pflueger and his family’s Mary Lucas Trust, along with the state and Kauai county governments, and other private entities – and criminal charges pending against Pflueger for reckless endangerment and manslaughter – no local government agency volunteered to help with the clean up. Those who lived along the river were left to deal with the stinky, slimy mess.

In the fall of 2006, there was some clean up by a Department of Public Works contractor and volunteers where potentially hazardous items including automobiles; refrigerators; steel drums; and propane cylinders were removed. But there was much more to do. That was funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at a cost of $1.2 million and the county paid $97,000.

But there was still an estimated 6,800 cubic yards of greenwaste and 25 tons of automobiles, white goods, and scrap metal to clean up along with sediment so thick that it left the river just inches deep in some places.

Area resident Bob Warren, one of 13 property owners along the Kilauea River, was fed up. He successfully lobbied Hawaii U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye for $4 million for the dredging and removal of any other foreign materials found along the half-mile river stretch fronting his home.

Warren, a boater who frequently spent time with his family on Kilauea River, had mapped out the bottom of the riverbed with his sonar before and after the breach. He allowed the state’s private designer to use his map, his property and his boat to get a plan to dredge the river. He also successfully worked with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to get everything in order so the river project could be completed. Now he, along with the DLNR officials and other residents, are waiting for the state attorney general’s office to finalize everything, so the contract for dredging can be awarded.

But there were problems along the way with the state attorney general’s office, which could never reach an agreement with landowners on liability. The state had wanted to use the private property of the landowners to dredge the river, which was fine with the property owners, but the state attorney general’s office also tried to get the landowners to sign what was being deemed as an “unprecedented” liability agreement that says landowners must take all liability for the clean up for the next 25 years, long after the life expectancy of some of the residents.

Landowners, which included entertainer Bette Midler, could not find an insurance company that would cover a policy for this language or get a private lawyer to sign off on it.

Finally, with concern over the federal funding being in jeopardy of expiring before the project could be completed, the county agreed to take the project over in June of 2010.

Last week, county officials announced they’d finished the clean up of Kīlauea River and Wailapa Stream clean-up.

Earthworks Pacific, Inc., the contractor for the project, removed 23,960 cubic yards of debris and sediment.

The $4 million obtained from the National Resources Conservation Service was backed up by $631,000 in state funds and in-kind and design services, and $400,000 from the county for construction management.

“The restoration of this watershed is very important to the well-being of our community, and we couldn’t allow the funds to lapse without pushing for the extension,” said the mayor.