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Many worry ash and rubble from Lahaina could wash into the ocean


In Maui, the county government has filed a lawsuit over the wildfires that have now claimed more than 100 lives. The lawsuit claims the utility Hawaiian Electric was negligent by failing to turn off the power grid when high winds hit the island. The cause of the fire, we should note, is still under investigation. In the meantime, many people worry that ash and rubble from the devastated town of Lahaina could wash into the ocean and contaminate the water. Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk reports on the efforts to prevent that.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: There's very little left of Lahaina's historic waterfront - just piles of rubble, powdery gray ash, which is why residents like Travis Cabanilla Okano are nervous when there's rain in the forecast.

TRAVIS CABANILLA OKANO: Rain's going to wash everything away, you know, and then our ocean is going to be dead, our reef. That's what my family lives on, you know. We do fishing, diving - everything we do is with the water.

SOMMER: Okano lost his home in the fire. Finding housing, supporting his community - those are priorities right now. But the ocean is also part of the community for many in Lahaina, and residents don't want to see more damage done. Lt. Trenton Brown of the U.S. Coast Guard says they're working to prevent that.

TRENTON BROWN: We're hoping to restrict any oil or hazardous material from entering into the water.

SOMMER: Brown says the problem is that storm drains in Lahaina empty into the ocean. So county officials have surrounded them with debris-catchers - basically long tubes of organic matter that act like a barrier.

BROWN: It's just a way of almost filtering the water that enters into the storm drain.

SOMMER: The Coast Guard is also putting booms in the ocean to catch oil from burned cars. And the EPA plans to spray burned debris with a biodegradable gluelike substance that's designed to keep the dust down. Still, Brown says some runoff is still likely to reach the ocean, and the contaminants are concerning. Curt Storlazzi works on coastal hazards with the U.S. Geological Survey.

CURT STORLAZZI: You've got a car - it's in the heavy metals in the catalytic converter, but then you've also burned the fuel in the gas tank and the rubber tires. There's such a wide range of chemicals in there - same thing in a house.

SOMMER: A heavy rain could wash those chemicals into the ocean, harming the coral reefs just off the coast. Storlazzi is working with Hawaii state agencies to put monitoring equipment in the water, which will measure the chemicals the reefs are being exposed to. That could help them understand which reefs need help.

STORLAZZI: A lot of this material is going to become dissolved. So what's that zone of impact? Where do we need to do restoration or rehabilitation?

SOMMER: Urban runoff is already known to be a big problem for coral reefs. Jamison Gove is a research oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says the runoff from this fire could cause coral disease or death or simply make the water cloudier.

JAMISON GOVE: What that does is it blocks the sun reaching corals. And corals are photosynthetic organisms, so they need light to produce energy and therefore survive.

SOMMER: On top of that, this is an El Nino year, which means ocean temperatures could rise to dangerous levels on the reefs where the runoff would have an impact.

GOVE: Those reefs are already compromised. Their health is compromised. And so they're less likely to resist or recover from those marine heatwaves, those acute disturbances that can really devastate a reef.

SOMMER: Toxins could also get into fish and other animals, concentrating as they go up the food chain, which means health officials and scientists will need to monitor the ocean closely, given the lasting impact these fires could have.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.