Oahu’s construction boom is being fueled in part by a controversial source for raw materials — sand from dunes on Central Maui.
After Always Investigating started looking into the issue, Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa is stepping in with calls for a moratorium while county officials are looking at permit issues.
Sand is a key ingredient in concrete, and a lot of it is needed for massive projects like rail and all the condominiums going up on Oahu.
We learned it has long been brought over from Maui, but cultural and sustainability concerns are peaking again in a hot construction market. We connected all the dots to find out who’s benefiting from the sand mining, and got a promise of action that could bring it to a stop.
The valley in the Valley Isle is largely made of huge sand dunes, whittled down from hundreds of feet high over decades of Central Maui development.
“I grew up in these sand dunes in Wailuku,” said Clare Apana, a Native Hawaiian resident of Central Maui. “They sand-mined down 60 feet. They had already done 40 feet, and from my very own window, I could hear the shovels and machinery going, and it was agonizing to hear it.”
Tons of what’s dug up there gets shipped over to Oahu, because sand is a key ingredient in concrete for many big-city projects.
Lots of aggregate and crushed rock get exported too. Always Investigating watched massive earth-moving operations from a Maui pier to a barge, port to port, caravans of trucks and heavy equipment, sand and aggregate factories, all destined to become the very core of Honolulu’s buildings and infrastructure.
“Oahu has exceeded its inland sand reserves long ago,” said Rob Parsons, Maui County environmental coordinator, “and that’s why there’s been this convenient relationship of sand being trucked and barged and shipped over here for the purpose of making cement.”
“I sat and watched last Saturday as the trucks went one after another,” Apana said. “They take tons of sand at the same time. There was just one after another going down this road to the site, to the barge, to the site, to the barge.”
The county talked about a moratorium before, when its study said only a five-year supply of inland dune sand remained. That was more than 10 years ago.
“It’s a tremendous amount of sand that is leaving Maui,” Parsons said. “In my role as Maui County environmental coordinator, I think it’s really time to focus our attention to what’s happening before it becomes a real crisis, and it may be at that point.”
Always Investigating asked, why does it become a crisis when reserves are exceeded?
“It’s managing our resources. It’s just smart planning, and it’s sustainability,” Parsons said.
With building hotter than ever, talk of blocking or more regulation of the sand trade is back on the radar. Shipments of sand and aggregate from Maui are peaking again, and sand digging continues, largely at the 1,000-acre Maui Lani development.
We tracked the county document trail and, using valid grading permits, mapped the sand flow and verified it with the companies, landowners and leases involved, and here’s what we found:
- Maui Lani has a permit to excavate several hundred thousand cubic yards at its Phase 9 site. Permit | Map
- It received the green light for a temporary trucking path through a nearby parcel. Permit | Map
- That road connects to a stockpile site on a parcel leased from A&B (Alexander & Baldwin) by HC&D, formerly known as Ameron, where another grading permit lets HC&D take in even more volume of sand and other earthen fill, and divvy it up from there. Permit | Map
- Some of the sand gets taken to the harbor every few weeks or so, put on the Quinault, a barge owned by HC&D, and shipped to its own cement plant on Oahu. Click to view sand and sand aggregate shipping log: Summary | Detail
- From there, it’s mixed in to make cement and is disbursed across the island, including for projects like rail.
- HC&D — paid as ownership entity Pohaku Paa and Ameron — made $30 million from rail last fiscal year alone.
Use our interactive map to learn about each parcel of land:
A Maui Lani Partners spokesperson says the company often uses the excavated sand within the project itself. Some gets taken offsite. We asked Maui Lani how it decides what stays and goes, and were told that’s up to the excavation contractor, which is HC&D. (View Maui Lani’s full response below.)
All these entities — Maui Lani Partners, the excavation company, the Quinault barge, the rail subcontractor — share a common owner in Bill Mills, a main partner in all of it.
The Mills Group told Always Investigating, “There are multiple owners of the numerous development parcels which include various homebuilders and private entities. No individual or single company owns all of Maui Lani.” The group also said it doesn’t get involved in the daily operations of HC&D:
“Maui Lani is a 1,000 acre Master Planned Community in Central Maui. There are multiple owners of the numerous development parcels which include various homebuilders and private entities. No individual or single company owns all of Maui Lani.
“HC&D has been operating in Hawaii for over 100 years. Ownership of HC&D was acquired by several local investors in 2014. Local management is responsible for the day-to-day operations of HC&D. The ownership group does not get involved in the daily operations of the Company.”
But county officials may get very involved again as they revive talk of a moratorium or regulation.
“I think we need to look at our inland sand reserves and ask the same kinds of questions: What will happen if we continue this without any further controls?” Parsons said.
Always Investigating asked, can government tell a private property owner and a private sand purchaser to stop?
“Sure. They’d have to pass the appropriate ordinances to do so, but it certainly could be done and has been done in other jurisdictions,” Parsons said. “It doesn’t fall under mining as minerals would. We just don’t have the rules in place to govern it on an island by island. I think we need to understand it is not an endless commodity. It is a precious resource and needs to be treated as such.”
HC&D told Always Investigating it will be curbing the sand exports themselves, that starting next month, it will import sand from British Columbia, which it says will offset Maui shipments. (View HC&D’s full response below.)
“This new source provides access to a long-term supply of sand and its composition is well suited for our project demand,” said HC&D president Wade Wakayama. “Sand travelling between Maui and Oahu has declined severely over the last 10-12 years and will continue to follow this trend.”
The state’s other major company in the same line of business, Hawaiian Cement, had voluntarily stopped exporting Maui sand during last decade’s moratorium talk. Jason Macey, Hawaiian Cement’s president, told Always Investigating it also no longer excavates sand anymore on Maui. It has a stockpile of it from a Central Maui Safeway project a few years back, but Macey says it will only be used on the Valley Isle. Hawaiian Cement ships out only rock aggregate from its Maui quarry. Instead of using sand for its concrete product, it mixes in fly ash from Oahu’s H-Power waste-burning plant.
Critics of the sand mining say they also have concerns about aggregate quarries and exports, saying rock is also a finite resource. They have concerns if any of the barges departing Maui are carrying crushed rocks taken out of Iao Valley after flooding last September.
Aside from the sustainability arguments, Native Hawaiians and others are concerned about the iwi, or ancestral burials, frequently encountered in the sand dunes.
“Kakanilua is a very famous battle that happened right there on these sands,” said Apana, whose group Malama Kakanilua aims to raise awareness of the area’s history. “Many of these burials are probably a result of that battle. Our iwi kupuna, our ancestors’ bones, have been placed all over this entire island (of Oahu) in the concrete.”
Maui Lani told us it operates with state and archaeologist oversight, even to “redesign subdivisions and relocate infrastructure to minimize any potential impacts to cultural finds,” while HC&D said it’s “very mindful of the cultural importance of ancient Hawaiian burials and all laws governing proper care are complied with.”
“There are dozens and dozens of burials out in the vicinity of where they’re mining right now,” Parsons said.
Any discoveries of human skeletal remains get reported to the state. Maui Lani declined to disclose the count to Always Investigating.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources’ State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD) says it doesn’t track a running tally either, because the 1,000-acre development is so big and goes back so many decades under a slew of different files:
“Maui Lani is a residential/commercial project that started sometime in the 1990s. Maui Lani purchased about 1,000 acres from A&B. Since then, the 1,000 acres has been divided into several commercial and residential developments. Since numerous development and parties are involved, we do not have a tally of all the finds, whether those finds are a full set of skeletal remains, partial set, or isolated fragments. As our records are TMK-based, we would have to first determine the relevant TMK’s and then go through each to see whether human skeletal remains were found in that TMK. That research will take a lot of time.”
The Maui-Lanai burial council wants a running total nonetheless. Always Investigating researched all posted agendas on SHPD’s website and found notices of about a dozen human skeletal remains discoveries at Maui Lani’s phases 6 and 9 during the 2014-2017 span of agendas posted. SHPD no longer has the Maui-Lanai agendas on its website prior to 2014.
“It is a cultural resource, a precious cultural resource to be preserved,” Apana said.
Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa told Always Investigating Thursday that he’s going to ask the county council to stop it:
“Why are we exporting sand to Oahu when we are going to need that sand for our projects and replenishing our beaches? The studies that were released in the early 2000s showed that our sand supply would be depleted in less than a decade if we kept allowing this sort of mining to continue. This is why I asked the county council back during my first term to explore the option of declaring a moratorium on the export of sand in order to extend the life of Maui’s remaining sand resources for our people. Then the Great Recession hit us and construction projects were stalled, so the sand mining wasn’t really a problem when we began our second term, but with the economy back in gear it has become an issue once more. Therefore I plan to ask this new council to do what our old council did not, which is to declare a moratorium.”
William Spence, director of the County’s Department of Planning, says while the grading permits are valid, the companies may also need special use permits (SUP) and conditional use permits (CUP) and would have to halt until those are in, if that’s the case:
“The county is in the process of investigating the issue of sand being mined and transported off property. So far we have determined that while the grading permits were issued properly, the excavation and exportation of high-quality sand for making concrete and other purposes meets the definition of a ‘resource extraction.’ As per Maui County Code, any resource extraction being performed on agricultural zoned land also requires a special use permit. They would also need a conditional use permit for the project district. (Neither an SUP nor a CUP are on file at this time). The county has in the course of our investigation relayed this message to company officials. Further actions may be necessary once the county’s investigation is complete.”
HC&D said any more restrictions on sand excavations and exports could have “unintended consequences for the state and other businesses.”
“HC&D is a kama’aina company established in 1908 on Oahu and have been a part of the Maui community for over 50 years. We work with many landowners, businesses, and even homeowners on all islands to provide various services and products as well as support multiple community projects.
“Maui Lani, the landowner of a current project in Central Maui, has reached out for our involvement due to your inquiries on our activity.
“We are currently providing rough grading work in preparation for a residential subdivision as well as an extension of the Maui Lani Parkway. As in all projects, the contours and final elevations determine if the project will require imported fill or have excess material.
“When there is excess material, we work to find other uses to recycle the materials. In the case of sand, the material varies in shape, size and composition. Uses for each type differs and include but are not limited to general backfill, beach replenishment, golf courses/parks, infrastructure construction, and as raw material for ready-mix concrete.
“HC&D is very mindful of the cultural importance of ancient Hawaiian burials and all laws governing proper care are complied with including the use of an archaeologist that monitors all sand movement for any sign of burials. In addition, HC&D takes great effort to ensure that we are in compliance with all applicable State and County laws regulating our site work activity.
“HC&D does not export sand out of state; all sand sourced from Maui remains in Hawaii and depending on the characteristics of the material, we work with our clients to determine the best material for their needs. This often means that material is laboratory-tested to determine if it meets specifications determined by engineers.
“Oahu businesses have been a frequent consumer of sand products and they do source sand through HC&D as well as outside of the state of Hawaii. Sand travelling between Maui and Oahu has declined severely over the last 10-12 years and will continue to follow this trend. Beginning May 2017, sand will be imported from British Columbia offsetting Maui shipments. This new source provides access to a long-term supply of sand and its composition is well suited for our project demand.”
Follow-up Q&A between Always Investigating and Wakayama:
Can you share numbers regarding sand traveling from Maui to Oahu declining over the past 10-12 years as you mentioned? Competitive reasons prevent the sharing of volume shipped from Maui. As indicated, the decline over the past decade is now at a point where British Columbia sand will replace sand received on Oahu.
As to the British Columbia imports offsetting the Maui shipments, what will the cost of that raw material be relative to Maui sand? Again, competitive reasons prevent the sharing of cost information but we expect it to vary over time dependent on various economic factors including supply and demand conditions.
If the county pursues a moratorium or regulations again, as were discussed last decade, how would the following affect your operations and your clients given 1) Moratorium or restrictions on Maui excavations, and 2) Moratorium or restrictions on exports to Oahu? It is difficult to comment on a hypothetical bill or regulation without a review of specific wording as any proposal may have unintended consequences for the state and other businesses.
“With a master plan that received project district approvals in 1990, the Maui Lani community moves towards fruition by way of the vision and diligent efforts of many landowners including Maui Lani Partners; D.R. Horton; Towne Development; HRT, Ltd.; County of Maui; and the State Department of Education – just to name a few.
“As part of the land planning and approval process, every phase of Maui Lani follows the permitting and approval requirements of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources under Chapter 6E, Hawaii Revised Statutes, and Chapter 13, Hawaii Administrative Rules. These requirements include an Archaeological Inventory Survey and the preparation of a Monitoring Plan before a permit may be obtained. All earth-moving activities are monitored by an Archaeological Monitor in accordance with the state-approved Monitoring Plan. Maui Lani has been working under the advisement of Cultural Advisor Leslie Kuloloi’o for almost twenty years. They continue to have both Archaeological Monitors and a Cultural Monitor on their projects. Under the direction of Leslie Kuloloi’o, Maui Lani has worked cooperatively with the State Historic Preservation Division and the Maui/Lana’i Island Burial Council to redesign subdivisions and relocate infrastructure to minimize any potential impacts to cultural finds.
“Each landowner makes its own decisions as to the planning and construction of their property following State and County laws and zoning. In regards to Maui Lani Partners, Maui Lani has worked with numerous local site work contractors over the years in the construction of subdivisions and regional infrastructure improvements. The most efficient subdivision planning is a site that is balanced, where all graded material remains onsite to create the subdivision. In some cases, residual material that cannot be used onsite is moved to the golf course or other areas of development. The final destination of residual material is typically determined by the site contractor.”