Honolulu Civil Beat
January 10, 2018
Hawaii leaders have no idea what to do about a environmental problem that could cost billions of dollars to fix.
By Nathan Eagle
It seemed appropriate Wednesday that a fruitless discussion of Hawaii's massive cesspool problem by legislators and state health regulators came down to a bad joke.
The two-hour exchange resulted in no progress on what Rep. Chris Lee called a "crappy situation for everyone."
At least half of the 88,000 cesspools in the islands are either currently contaminating or threatening to pollute drinking water supplies, coastal areas and coral reefs, according to a report last month by the Department of Health.
"It's not just public health," said Ted Bohlen, deputy attorney general who works on wastewater issues. "If we lose our coral, we're going to lose a lot. We're going to lose our shoreline. We're going to lose our economy."
Health officials estimated it would cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion to replace all the cesspools with septic tanks over the next three decades. That's not counting additional costs for connecting to county sewer systems, where available, or maintaining septic systems, which filter the waste better but still presents environmental concerns.
Sens. Kalani English and Jill Tokuda, Reps. Jarrett Keohokalole and Nicole Lowen were among the lawmakers who took turns pressing state and county officials for answers to this longstanding problem.
Tokuda said she wanted more data on the tens of thousands of cesspools that the department has not yet analyzed, as well as input from the residents who would need to replace their systems.
"Give us some real answers," Tokuda said. "Tell us what you need. I still don't know what that is."
Keith Kawaoka, deputy director of the department's Environmental Health Administration, said he and his colleagues want to hear from community members rather than "prescribe what needs to be done."
The department planned two public meetings this week in the areas most affected by the cesspools, upcountry Maui and Kahaluu on Oahu. Some 7,400 cesspools on Maui have caused nitrate levels in well water to spike dangerously close to unsafe-drinking levels and there have been "incidents of skin infections consistent with sewage-contaminated surface waters" in Kahaluu, according to the health department's report.
English lambasted health officials for coming unprepared to the meeting Tuesday on Maui that attracted 300 residents. He said the department representatives were late, had no PA system and had to rely on the public to help get the meeting going.
The meeting ended up being productive, he said, but he noted that his constituents are very concerned about how they would pay for a new wastewater system and whether it would even be feasible given the topography in some areas. Estimates for a septic system — which at least filters waste through a tank instead of just a hole in the ground — are in the tens of thousands of dollars.
"We have to consider it very carefully," English said. "But we have to come up with multiple solutions that can work in multiple areas."
He also noted that the one drinking well in upcountry Maui that tested close to exceeding safe standards is for one development project. He said others tested showed far lower levels of nitrates.
Barbara Brooks, state toxicologist, said the biggest concern is with infants less than 4 months old. She said they can't handle high levels of nitrates, and that it can cause "blue baby syndrome," which can be fatal.
The nitrate levels at the upcountry Maui well that was tested were 9 milligrams per 100 milliliters. The safe limit is 10 milligrams. English said other wells in the area tested at 2 milligrams.
"The water is safe to drink but that doesn't mean we don't have a problem," Bohlen said.
While there was general agreement that the answer will have to be multipronged, neither lawmakers nor government officials brought new ideas Wednesday.
Honolulu Environmental Services Director Lori Kahikina said the city is hamstrung by a 2010 federal consent decree that requires it to upgrade its sewer system and wastewater treatment plants, at an estimated cost at the time of $5.1 billion. The decree resulted from illegal sewer overflows and Clean Water Act violations that involved millions of gallons of raw sewage dumping into the water.
Kahikina said it would be great if the city could reprioritize Kahaluu, for instance, and tie that community into a municipal sewer system to have a major impact on an area with an urgent need, but she said that's a conversation for the courts and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Asked by Sen. Gil Riviere how the counties might be able to reduce government bureaucracy and help facilitate faster solutions, county representatives were at a loss.
"As far as red tape, we're government," Kahikina said.
Bohlen told the panel, which included the chairs of the health and environment committees, that the bottom line is the health department is finding water pollution from cesspools.
"What solutions you adopt is up to you guys," he said.
The Legislature, which opens its next session Wednesday, passed a bill last year that required the health department's December report and also set a goal of eliminating all cesspools by 2050. Lawmakers have tried instituting tax credits to incentive residents to replace their cesspools but only a few dozen people have taken advantage of it since it was enacted in 2015. The state and feds have also cracked down on large-capacity cesspools and banned new cesspools.
There was some discussion Wednesday about reviving a departmental effort that languished in former Gov. Neil Abercrombie's final days in office in 2014 that would require an upgrade to a septic or other wastewater system upon the sale of the property.
Kawaoka has said that plan did not go over well with the public and would likely not be reconsidered. But Rep. Joy San Buenaventura said it should not be scuttled, adding that it might need to be tweaked but that there have been examples of it working.
Kim Falinski, an environmental engineer and soil scientist who works at The Nature Conservancy, offered some alternative options that might be more affordable and provide community benefits.
She said wetlands act as a sink for nutrients, so restoring them can help filter the polluted water that is seeping into the water supply from cesspools. She pointed at the Heeia watershed in eastern Oahu where she works as a positive example.
Nathan Eagle is a reporter for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @nathaneagle, Facebook here and Instagram here.