Wednesday, May 5, 2004

City faces lawsuit over
repeated sewage spills

Environmental groups say the
pollution has posed health risks

Three environmental groups said yesterday they will sue the city over repeated sewage spills "resulting in beach closures, human health risks and substantial economic losses."

The Hawaii Sierra Club, Hawaii's Thousand Friends and the mainland-based Our Children's Earth "brought the suit because sewage running into our ocean and into people's homes and into our streets is not acceptable," said Donna Wong, executive director of Hawaii's Thousand Friends.

The groups announced their intent to sue with a 27-page letter delivered yesterday to Mayor Jeremy Harris. The city has repeatedly violated the federal Clean Water Act, the letter says.

According to the environmental groups, state Health Department records show the city had 309 sewage spills in 1999, 305 spills in 2000, 237 spills in 2001, 194 spills in 2002 and 183 spills in 2003.

"These spills sent large volumes of raw sewage streaming into private residences and businesses, streets, storm drains and numerous waterways, including near-shore coastal waters" islandwide, said a statement from the groups.

City Environmental Services Director Frank Doyle pointed to how much money the city has spent on sewer repairs in recent years and said spills during heavy winter storms in January and February this year were caused by an "aberration in the weather."

"This administration has spent more in the last 10 years to improve our wastewater system than any other period in history," Doyle said.

The city spent $940 million on wastewater system improvements from 1994 to 2003, Doyle said. The city is spending $73 million this fiscal year and next year's budget is for $120 million, he said.

Although this winter's closures of a number of Oahu beaches emphasized the state of the city sewage system, the groups had already been making plans to sue based on the city's noncompliance with court orders in prior lawsuits, Wong said yesterday.

Hawaii's Thousand Friends, which has been involved in four other lawsuits over city sewage problems since 1998, "would prefer not to sue," Wong said. "We would rather that government just protect the environment and human health."

But, Wong said, the state Department of Health and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seem to be understaffed and unwilling to police the city closely until citizens protest.

Wong said a number of the city's excuses for not meeting court-ordered sewage construction "are unacceptable," including pleas that contractors working in shoreline areas had unexpected problems with groundwater infiltrating work areas. Any contractor bidding on such a job should expect that, she said.

The city could attempt to reach an agreement with the plaintiffs before a lawsuit is filed in 60 days, said Christopher Sproul, an attorney for San-Francisco-based law firm Environmental Advocates, which represents the three groups.


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