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Health organization gives Waikiki's sand a clean bill of health

Sunday, April 23, 2006

HONOLULU -- Concerns that a massive sewage spill polluted Waikiki's world-famous beaches all but washed away after a health group said the sand "seems" to be clean.

Almost a month after the city discharged millions of gallons of raw sewage into an open-ocean canal, leading to warnings being posted on some beaches, the group said tests on sand concluded that "it seems some of the areas are cleaner than what a lot of us worried they would be."

"I'm relieved to get these results and hope they bring some peace of mind to others," said former state legislator Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo, whose new group, Healthy Hawaii Coalition, decided to get the sand analyzed.

State health director Chiyome Fukino said there was no point in testing the sand after the spill because studies have never been able to link human illness to bacteria found in the sand.

"All the evidence that we have today says that the beaches are as safe now as they were before the sewage," she said. "We have not had any increase in the number of illnesses and the water is testing good."

Reports of illnesses

Concern still lingered in the state legislature, where the House and Senate considered resolutions that could lead to more formal testing of the beach sand wherever high bacteria levels were found in the water.

The latest testing, conducted by Hawaii Food & Water Testing, showed mostly acceptable levels of bacteria, with the worst results near a Kailua Beach boat ramp on the other side of the island from Waikiki. Pollution in that area was mostly from runoff caused by heavy rains.

Healthy Hawaii said it had the sand tested because of reports that some beachgoers got ill.

Last month, Oliver Johnson, 34, a Honolulu mortgage broker, died days after plunging into sewage-contaminated waters and contracting a flesh-eating bacterial infection. His family blamed the polluted water, but a medical examiner's report noted Johnson also had other medical problems.

Sewer main burst

Earlier this week, 65-year-old George Koenig said his doctors found a bacterial infection in his foot after he walked on Waikiki Beach.

The city decided to pump 48 million gallons of wastewater into the Ala Wai Canal after a sewer main burst March 24. Beach activity around the islands has been light in recent weeks, following record rainfall and runoff.

Workers fixed the underground pipe six days later, but by then, wastewater had spread into the ocean, prompting officials to post hundreds of signs along beaches warning of polluted water.

City and state officials tested water quality off Waikiki daily and began taking down the warning signs early this month, but the sand was not sampled before the testing by Tamayo's group.

Toni Komu, whose two young children were coated in sand while building castles at Ala Moana Beach on a sunny Friday afternoon, welcomed the news.

"I had been a little concerned about the quality of the sand when we got here this morning," said Komu, who avoided the beach for three weeks after the spill. "It's good to know that it's OK."


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