Cover Story continued

Big Island rocked by cloud of uncertainty

There's no doubt that vog is changing life on Hawai'i, but that's all anyone can say for certain.

Sudy Jose farms coffee and raises fowl in South Kona, just a few miles from the traditional boundary with Ka’u. On a recent Friday afternoon, she got to talking about vog. “This is a good day,” she says of a morning on which a grayish haze looms over the slopes of Mauna Loa. “Some days it covers everything with a white dust, just like snow.” In the nearly six months since vog went from an occasional nuisance to a front-page headache, Jose has tried to adjust to what sometimes seems a different island. “We’re not happy campers, but this is what we have to live with now. Do you stay and lose everything? Do you leave and then the vog stops the next day? I don’t know. Everyone thinks differently.

“Am I worried? Yes, I’m worried. But what am I going to do?”

What to do? In interviews with residents, visitors and government officials here, it’s the question that won’t go away.

Long term health effects unknown

Volcanic air pollution, or “vog,” has been a part of Big Island life for decades, but has lately taken on new dimesions. Following the March 11 emergence of a new vent at Kilauea’s Halema’uma’u crater, air quality has plummeted as daily emissions from the crater have leapt from roughly 100 tons to an average of 1,000.

Vog is composed of sulfur dioxide (SO2) mixed with particulate matter of various origins. SO2 is considerered a chemical hazard by the Centers for Disease Controland Prevention and is the element of vog most closely watched by health officials. Particulate matter from the lower atmosphere may be just as harmful–no one knows for sure.

Scientists and health officials know surprisingly little about vog and its long-term effects on human health when present in high concentrations. One study released earlier this year appeared to show no appreciable risk to people without pre-existing respiratory conditions, but the study was conducted between 2001 and 2006, before the new emissions that began this spring.

Janice Okubo, public information officer at the Hawai’i Department of Health (DOH), echoes other officials. “There isn’t anything in history that is similar enough for us to use as a model for how to proceed,” she told Honolulu Weekly this week. “It’s a whole new situation.”

That’s little comfort to island residents worried about breathing difficulties and other problems that have exploded below the official radar in recent months, but Okubo says that at least for now, people in affected areas must make the best choices they can by paying attention to their own bodies, as they won’t be getting specific guidance from health professionals anytime soon. “Our general warning is more for people with chronic conditions that could be aggravated, but everyone reacts differently to different levels of exposure, so it’s very difficult to give a general emphasis,” Okubo said. “People need to monitor their own health and, if they feel they’re beginning to have problems, to remove themselves.”

State and federal officials are working to prepare national guidelines and recommendations for SO2 exposure–a first–but the unpredictable nature of the vog itself presents unique challenges. Okubo, who has been at the DOH for seven years, calls the vog outbreak, “one of the most difficult situations to explain to the public. We don’t know if there will be another [volcanic event leading to still higher vog levels]. We don’t know what the weather will be. We don’t know how particulate matter will be distributed. We want to be able to give warning and precautions, but it’s challenging. Back in July, the levels rose as high as 9 parts per million, but then dropped back down again within an hour. [Hawai'i Civil Defense, the agency charged with alerting the public to extremely high SO2 levels,] has a tough job. They want to give people information in a timely manner, but they also don’t want to alarm people.”

Officials can’t confirm extent of respiratory troubles

And yet people are alarmed.

It is difficult to find anyone living on the southern half of Hawai’i who reports no symptoms of vog exposure. From Kailua-Kona to Hilo, residents relate problems with headaches, sore throats, persistent coughs and other difficulties.

In Honaunau, far from the hardest-hit communities in Ka’u, a woman in her 50s who did not want to be identified, said she has not felt able to take a full, deep breath in months. “The vog is better some days and worse other days,” she said, “but even on light days, I never have the feeling that when I inhale, I’m getting a full breath.”

Farther down the coast, coffee farmer Jose, who said she and her husband have so far, “been lucky compared to what others have gotten,” nevertheless echoed reports from all around the island. “On bad days, you can taste it in your mouth.” Jose said that while she experienced significant congestion in the first few weeks, her lungs seem to have adjusted.

The Centers for Disease Control advisory on sulfur dioxide holds that up to 80 percent of people will eventually develop varying levels of tolerance to the chemical but stresses that acclimatization may not be benefical–while a decrease in symptoms may make an exposed person less uncomfortable, it may be a contributing factor to increased long-term exposure to SO2 and vog.

Doctors and health officials say whatever health problems may be accumulating in these communities are not showing up in their data. Cliff Field, medical director at Pahala’s Ka’u Hospital, says the new plume has coincided with only a small increase in respiratory-related emergency room visits but cautions about extrapolating much from that fact.

“It does appear to cause some symptoms,” Field said, ” but the last thing we want to do is cause panic.” Field said it will take time for hospitals and health officials to gather enough information to assess the risks.

Until then, the biggest threat remaining is the anxiety caused by the unknown. In testimony to state legislators this summer. Field pointed to what appeared, at least anecdotally, to be a spike in anxiety and other psychiatric problems. While he still can’t speak definitively without more data, Field said last week, “In any situation where people feel they aren’t able to do anything, that becomes significant.”

Damage to crops reported

The vog’s effects on agriculture, while far from clear, have at least produced some data. Kelvin Sewake, county extension agent with the University of Hawai’i at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, conducted a survey this summer of growers around the Big Island and reports damage at varying levels to a long list of crops. “We have food crops affected in the Volcano area,” Sewake said this week. “We’ve seen Chinese cabbage, broccoli, green onions and other vegetables showing damage there.” Sewake says some farmers have reported losing multiple crops entirely, though recent reports indicate they may be regaining their footing. “They are making efforts at mitigating the effects of the sulfuric acid, and some seem to be having at least partial success.”

He points out that while the loss of income and the uncertainty of future emissions has had a “huge” effect in the mountain areas of Volcano and Glenwood–where some farms are up for sale and others have already moved their operations to other parts of the island and state–the impact is even worse in the southern districts. “The trade winds seem to carry the vog straight down to Pahala and Ka’u. Then it wraps around and just sits right on the farming areas of Ocean View Estates.”

Hardest hit: Ocean View

A coffee grower in South Kona tells a map-dependent reporter, “You won’t need that. Just look for the trees to start turning brown. Ocean View…that’s where the devastation is.”

Though the vog itself is visible all over the island of Hawai’i –even on light days, a blanket of gray haze hangs over the slopes of the mountain–nowhere are the consequences more apparent than in the small community of Hawaiian Ocean View Estates. From grocers to farmers to cash-register clerks to people on the street, residents here report that the vog has quickly become “a nightmare.”

Linda Morgan, of Anuenue Natural Foods, points to a sign reading “Vog Relief” right next to the register. “We’ve been selling out of all of it,” Morgan says of the herbs, liquids, masks and other products promising respiratory help. Morgan says “most” visitors to her store report at least some symptoms, such as commonly persistent headaches beginning in the hours between 2am and 7am. The tell-tale smell of rotten eggs indicates the presence of high SO2 concentrations is difficult to live with as well, she said. “It’s been very bad.”

Across the parking lot at a grocery convenience store, passersby told of vegetable farmers who had suffered serious losses but refused to speak of them–even locally–for fear of causing alarm about their produce.

One farmer who will talk is flower producer Dan Wegner, owner of the largest protea farm in Ocean View. Testifying to the baffling nature of the vog crisis, Wegner’s 11 acres–which sit some 50 miles from the new vent at Halema’uma’u–might fairly be called this disaster’s ground zero.

“I’ve lost 80 to 90 percent of my crop,” Wegner says.

Prior to early March, the 65-year-old Wegner’s farm, like others nearby, was thriving. “Most of these protea came in 17 or 18 years ago. Everything was great up until a few months ago.” The plants require up to five years to reach commercial productivity and hit their productive peak after roughly 20 years. The bulk of Wegner’s farm has been lost right at its most profitable–and its own most vulnerable–age. Scanning the brown desolation on one of his farms, Wegner’ voice grows quiet. “This was supposed to be my livelihood. This was how I was going to support my wife and myself in our old age. That’s all gone now.”

Sewake hopes that’s not true and is hard at work to prevent it, but his summer report and frustrations since then have left him pessimistic. In talking with protea farmers in the Ocean View area, Sewake found that of just over 14,000 plants in the ground, more than 93 percent had suffered vog-related damage. Asked what the vog had done to their farms, protea farmers mentioned selling their land, moving to Maui and looking for work elsewhere, among other things. Many suggested they were ready to give up protea farming–which has grown from nothing into a $2 million industry in Hawai’i–unless volcanic conditions change soon. The trouble is, no one knows when, or even if, that may happen. And so, like everyone else on the island, they wait.

“I’m not one to want to throw in the towel,” Sewake says. “I want to help the farmers, and until the time comes when they can no longer survive, I’m going to try to help them as best I can. But it’s a tough one.”

Visitor counts drop, but why?

The volcano’s impact on tourism is difficult to separate from an overall decline in visitor counts statewide, says Murray Towill, president of the Hawai’i Hotel and Lodging Association. “One of the challeges right now is trying to determine why–obviously travel to the state is down, and to the Big Island in particular. But what part of that is attributable to vog, and what to the larger economic problems?” Towill points to skyrocketing fuel prices, the related loss of Aloha Airlines and a state and national economic downturn generally. “If the rest of the industry were booming and the Big Island wasn’t, that would be one thing,’ Towill says. “It’s not.”

And yet the Big Island’s same-month drop in June was the largest of any major island at 23.9 percent. “There’s certainly some” loss of hotel business as a result of the vog, Towill acknowledges. But, he says that at least on the basis of what hotel owners are hearing from their guests, there has “not [been] a great deal of impact. In fact, at a number of properties, guests were understanding and knew this was a natural occurrence. Not only is there not much we can do, but for many of them, the volcanic activity was one of the main reasons they came to the Big Island in the first place.” As for the tourists who are concerned? “We are straightforward and upfront with them,” Towill says. “There’s not much else we can do.”

“You have to do something”

These are unsettled and unsettling days on the Big Island–residents and businesses had enough to deal with in a faltering economy before a cloud of potentially harmful gases settled over their lives. While state and federal officials are taking initial steps–shelters have been identified for the worst vog days, task forces established, research and monitoring efforts redoubled–people are left to their own devices in the meantime.

On the slopes of Mauna Loa one recent evening, Wegner stood among the SO2-charred remains of his proteas. He needs help, in the form of grants, to replant new, vog-resistant varieties and of water to save what’s left of his crop. Wegner says county officials have been clear: There’s little they can do. Without an unlikely presidential disaster declaration or a sudden cessation of the new vog emissions, Dan Wegner will lose this farm. And at least until Sewake or someone else comes up with a way to mitigate the toxins, there’s nothing he can do.

“Last month I came out here and put in 200 new plants,” he said. “They weren’t going to make it, of course. I knew that.” The new plants died. “But you have to do something.

“Don’t you?”