Like sand in an hourglass

The Maui News
Sunday, February 12, 2006

By ILIMA LOOMIS, Staff Writer

WAILUKU – Maui is running out of something most people take for granted: sand.

The vast system of inland sand dunes that stretches across Wailuku has largely been covered by development, and what's left is being mined – about 318,000 tons of the stuff dug out and used each year, 70 percent of it shipped to Honolulu. At that rate, the last available sand on the island will be gone within five to seven years, according to a report being prepared for the county.

"Anyone who knew about it would know we're running out of sand," said Chip Fletcher, professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. "It's just surprising it's happening so soon."

Sand is a key ingredient in concrete, and a shortage will mean importing a substitute, increasing the cost of construction across the state. It's also the only material now available that can be used in beach-restoration projects.

"I don't think most people really know

how important sand is," said consultant Howard Hanzawa, who authored the study.

Environmentalists and construction industry leaders said the county should take immediate steps to preserve what sand the island has left, and restrict its export to Honolulu.

"It's alarming," said Lance Holter, chair of the Sierra Club, Maui Chapter. "I'm glad they finally did the study, because it will substantiate the need for conservation."

Doyle Betsill, president of Betsill Brothers Construction, said sand was so valuable to the Maui building industry that it was questionable to continue shipping it off the island.

"We need to look at this from a conservation level and strongly evaluate whether we want to permit that policy to continue," he said.

Sand has been mined on Maui since before World War II, and for years it was excavated in limited amounts from beaches in the Paia area to produce lime at a nearby kiln.

Mining activity jumped in the 1970s, as a construction boom fueled a demand for concrete, and the large inland dunes from Waihee to Waikapu became the main source of commercial sand.

The first barge load was shipped to Honolulu in 1985, and today Maui is the main source of sand used in Oahu concrete.

Some 5.5 million tons of sand have been mined on Maui in the past 20 years, according to the report prepared by Hanzawa for the county Department of Public Works and Environmental Management.

While plenty of sand is still in the ground under Wailuku, most of it is inaccessible because it's covered by development – from the "Sand Hills" residential area to the "Dunes at Maui Lani."

Ameron Hawaii and Hawaiian Cement are currently excavating on some of the last undeveloped dunes, in Maui Lani and lower Waikapu. Using data provided by the two companies, Hanzawa estimated that the sand remaining at those sites amounted to about 1.9 million tons.

With the companies currently using sand at the rate of 318,000 tons per year, that supply should be exhausted in 5.9 years, according to the report.

"Maui has had this valuable resource for a long time," Hanzawa said, "but with development over the dunes, we kind of locked up the resource in many areas."

Hanzawa is Maui manager for the engineering firm SSFM International.

His report, "Maui Inland Sand Resource Quantification Study," is being prepared in connection with a special use permit application for Hawaiian Cement sand-mining operations on agricultural lands. A draft was distributed to county officials in January.

Some county officials reviewing the report argued that its findings shouldn't be made public because it is still being finalized.

"What I've seen are preliminary results," said county Coastal Resources and Shoreline Planner Thorne Abbott.

He said the study was "good planning," but should be reviewed by experts before being released.

Hanzawa stood by the main conclusions of his report that the supply of available sand on Maui was expected to last five to seven years. An executive with Ameron Hawaii confirmed that the data were consistent with his company's estimates. Officials from Hawaiian Cement could not be reached for comment.

County Environmental Coordinator Rob Parsons said he hoped the report would not be taken as "alarmist" but would provoke a thoughtful policy discussion.

"I want to have clear, reasoned thinking about how we use this information," he said.

Eric Yoshizawa, vice president of Ameron Maui operations, said Ameron's plan is to continue using Maui sand "as long as it's available."

Alternatives, such as imported granite sand, or developing a new product out of crushed rock, will increase the cost of concrete and give it a less-desirable texture, he said. Sand-based concrete is easier for masons to work with, because the individual grains are rounded and slide past each other, while man-made substitutes have angular grains and are harder to shape.

Yoshizawa said Ameron did not plan to conserve sand, because it would be too expensive to stockpile for longer than five years, and if they didn't excavate the sand soon it would be lost to development.

"The issue of availability is really misunderstood and perhaps overstated," he said. "It's available for a window of time when someone develops. Once they build on it, essentially they're covering the resource."

But Yoshizawa did say Ameron was taking steps to stretch its supply by experimenting with new reduced-sand concrete mixes.

"As an industry, we know we're dealing with a finite resource," he said.

The dwindling supply of Maui sand is a serious concern for the local construction industry. In addition to being a prime component of concrete, it's favored as a soft filler to cushion pipes and electrical lines in utility trenches. Builder Betsill said that when sand is found on a job site, his company is careful to set it aside for future use.

"We've always considered it to be a highly valuable resource," he said.

He'd heard rumors that there was less sand available on the island but hadn't realized how close the island was to running out. A shortage could mean an increase in concrete prices, and that in turn would raise construction costs and the price of homes. Since affordable homes tend to be built on slab foundations that use more concrete, they'd be particularly affected, he said.

"It's difficult to say what will happen when we run out of sand," he said. "Obviously the only alternative will be to ship it in from another source, and my first reaction is it will have a significant impact on the cost of concrete. It doesn't bode well for the future of affordable housing on Maui," he said.

The dwindling supply also threatens programs to deal with dwindling beaches.

Beach replenishment has been a relatively small user of Maui sand; out of 3 million tons of sand mined on Maui in the last 10 years, only 53,000 tons went to beaches.

But the number of beach-restoration projects is expected to increase significantly, as erosion threatens shoreline properties and new laws restrict the use of sea walls.

Island sand is the only material that can be used on beaches, because sand imported from the Mainland is a different material that would smother the tiny creatures that burrow near the shoreline.

If the dunes aren't available, the only alternative for beach restoration will be to dredge sand from the ocean floor.

That's a laborious and costly process, and it's not guaranteed to yield good results – a lot of ocean sand is choked with silt or plant and animal waste, "just too dirty for beaches," according to Zoe Norcross-Nuu, Sea Grant Maui extension agent.

She was concerned that future beach-nourishment projects would be too expensive for private landowners.

"The cost is already going up," she said.

Fletcher said that with coastal dunes already lost to development, the islands will rely more and more on replenishment projects to keep sand on beaches.

"It's beach nourishment that allows beaches some possibility to continue to exist," he said. "I see this as a major threat to managing our beaches, this loss of sand."

Ameron's Yoshizawa said he expected the price of sand and concrete to increase because of the looming shortage and increased government regulation of mining.

Dust control, archaeological monitoring, stabilization and other requirements have already affected the cost of the product, he said.

Ten years ago, Grade A sand sold for $5 a ton on Maui and $10 in Honolulu. Today the price is $20 on Maui and $40 in Honolulu.

"The price of sand is at a real flux today because we're closer to where we see an end to its availability, and because the regulations surrounding sand have become increasingly difficult," he said.

The future price of concrete is hard to predict because it is affected by so many factors, especially cement and fuel costs. But it's safe to say that exhausting local sand will drive the price up.

"When we go to the alternatives, we will see an increase in the cost of production," he said.

Yoshizawa said it was unrealistic to expect concrete companies to conserve sand, because development was actually the force driving availability.

Ameron and Hawaiian Cement are the middlemen in the sand trade, he said, buying sand from landowners who want it removed ahead of development, and selling it to the construction industry.

"We have to front the financial resources to pull it out, store it for a period of time, and then we work off the storage," he said.

The company doesn't like to stockpile sand for longer than five years, he said, because the material gets dirty or blows away, and renting land to store it is expensive. It can't be preserved onsite, because it will just be covered and go to waste.

"I can appreciate the sensitivity on all of this," he said. "I'm not sure that if we disappeared, though, that the availability would be any different, because the development of those sites would go on."

Yoshizawa said Ameron would continue shipping sand to Oahu because there simply wasn't enough demand to keep it on Maui.

"The primary consumption tends to be on Oahu, where the market is larger," he said.

He also said the company wouldn't keep sand specifically for beach replenishment. While Ameron supports restoration projects and has made sand available whenever needed, there hasn't been much demand, he said. That's not because sand isn't available, but because replenishment is expensive, he said.

If any individual clients wanted to store sand for future beach projects, Ameron would gladly work with them, Yoshizawa added.

"We'd like to be a participant in that," Yoshizawa said. "If we see it happening, yeah, we'd put something on the side. I just see it as a very limited activity at the moment."

The only two beach-nourishment projects on Maui have been at Sugar Cove in Kuau, where sand was added 11 times in the past 10 years, and at the Kanai A Nalu Condominiums in Maalaea, where sand was added three or four times. Both projects were privately funded.

As cement companies hope to get as much sand as they can out of the dunes they have left, some Native Hawaiians would like to see mining stop sooner. That's because dunes are sites for ancient burials that are often disturbed by excavation.

Ancient Hawaiians buried their dead in sand dunes for a variety of reasons, including using the shifting sands to fool grave robbers, said said Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., chairman of the Maui Burial Council.

In a 435-acre parcel currently being mined by Hawaiian Cement, 20 acres have already been declared off-limits because they contained burials. More than 30 burial sites have been found in the area, according to Hanzawa's report.

Under state law, excavation must stop immediately when bones are unearthed. But Maxwell thought that mining should not be allowed in the area to begin with, since it's known to be a hot spot for human remains.

"That's why the need for this sand to build Maui clashes every time with the burials," he said.

Mayor Alan Arakawa said the study's findings were deeply concerning, and he wanted to see sand managed better, particularly by restricting exports to Honolulu.

"We should be reserving our assets for our own community," he said.

Arakawa said he was still waiting for the final results of the study, and that he would look for ways the county could better control the industry. Anticipating opposition from concrete companies, the mayor said there was a larger public interest at stake in controlling sand use.

"We're having to deal with a corporate world that's looking at bottom-line numbers, and I think they're being very shortsighted," he said.

As the community struggles with competing needs for sand on Maui, some people also suggest it be preserved as part of the natural environment.

"Dunes are definitely a part of the Hawaiian landscape," said UH geologist Fletcher.

"They're pretty unique," said Norcross-Nuu. "Physically, dunes are quite possibly worth preserving as geological features."

While not much is understood about sand dunes and how they formed in Hawaii, Fletcher said he believed they had been formed over hundreds or thousands of years by geological processes that are no longer active in the islands.

"In other words, dune landscapes may be fossil landscapes," he said. "They won't come back."

Ilima Loomis can be reached at

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