OHA considers legal action to ensure complete halt to Maui sand mining

Photo: Kai Nishiki

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs wants faster, stricter protections for central Maui sand dunes after Always Investigating exposed the extent of sand exports and business connections on Oahu.

After our investigation in April, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa called for a sand export moratorium, and a resolution related to that is moving through the Maui County Council.

But OHA is calling for all grading to stop immediately, and says it will take up whether to sue to stop it if need be.

Millions of tons of sand from central Maui dunes have been dug out and shipped off since the barging practice began in the mid-1980s.

“We’re talking about a pretty massive area,” said Jocelyn Doane, OHA public policy manager, “immense cultural value, and well-known for having iwi from battles and other burials.”

Always Investigating exposed the continued impact of the practice, and how recent shared ownership interests connected Maui Lani developer Bill Mills, excavation company HC&D, the sand barge Quinault, and the company Pohaku Paa and Ameron (now HC&D) that sold $30 million worth of cement in just one year alone to the Honolulu rail project.

Community activists want an all-out stop on the digging and told OHA on Thursday they’re ready to stage a sit-in to block it if they have to, “to do the only thing we can do to stop them,” said activist Clare Apana. “It looks like it’s getting to that point, and these people made $30 million on selling our kupuna last year. I don’t think they lack for money to go against us.”

“I spoke to an attorney. He said we have a case, because he said all the sand that was brought here for those columns was paid for by public taxpayer money,” said OHA trustee Lei Ahu Isa. “It is not private money. It’s our money that paid for it.”

The OHA trustees weighed asking Maui Lani Partners to cease all sand and other resource extraction and grading to give county and state regulators time to sort out zoning, permits, and iwi preservation practices. Maui Lani and HC&D have grading permits related to the area, but the county had issued notice to pause and apply for more permits, something the companies have said they’re reviewing.

OHA says its research shows tougher and quicker action is possible.

“Our public policy staff looked further into the department’s notice of violation and did more of a thorough analysis which we think will help the department,” Doane said.

“Industrial-scale sand mining is clearly an impermissible use in the Maui Lani district under this zoning code,” said Wayne Tanaka, OHA senior public policy advocate. “The grading and grubbing permit could not authorize on its own an impermissible land use, and the grading permit itself may be subject to suspension or revocation.”

Tanaka says suspension or revocation is possible because when Maui Lani applied for the permit, it checked “no” when asked if there were known burials in Maui Lani Phase 9, despite the documented history of a prevalence of iwi in the area.

“Regardless of whether they should have known or regardless of their intent when they had that representation, in 2016, Maui Lani reported that they at least three times had inadvertently encountered burials,” Tanaka said, “and so we believe an argument could be made that the information submitted was incorrect with respect to burials and that in and of itself could be a basis for revocation or suspension of the grading permit.”

Meanwhile, county officials and Valley Isle advocates are questioning recent sand moving at the property, even after the county’s warnings to stop until permit issues could be resolved.

County spokesman Rod Antone told Always Investigating: “Sand mining in this area is required to cease. The County Planning Department and Department of Public Works are reviewing the work that was performed earlier this week to check compliance with the grading permit and county zoning laws on resource extraction.

“Regarding the archaeological monitoring plan,” Antone added, “we ask that people refer complaints to the state regarding potential violations of the plan or historic preservation laws.”

The public is advised to report any violations to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement hotline at (808) 643-3567.

OHA voted Thursday to ask for the grading to stop, and said it will come back to talk budgeting and planning for litigation if it has to sue get an injunction against the county or the landowner.

It released the following statement:

“The Office of Hawaiian Affairs calls upon Maui Lani Partners to cease all sand and other resource extraction and grading to allow:

  • The Maui Department of Planning to determine if sand extraction violates the Maui Zoning Code;
  • The Maui Department of Public Works to determine if revocation or suspension of the Phase IX grading permit is appropriate; and
  • The State Historic Preservation Department and the Maui Lānaʻi Islands Burial Council to properly investigate the discovery of burials and whether historic preservation laws and conditions have been fully complied with and enforced.”

“We have to do something now, and we cannot wait any longer,” said OHA trustee Carmen Hulu Lindsey.

“It’s almost imperative that we do this today,” Ahu Isa said. “They’re digging away all of this sand with iwi in it. It’s sad.”

We asked Maui Lani and HC&D to respond to OHA’s position and to the county’s assertions about permits. Maui Lani has said all earth-moving activities are done under archaeological monitoring.

After our story aired in April, HC&D got its first shipments of sand imported from British Columbia. The company said it will be relying on that for cement production on Oahu instead of taking it off Maui.

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