City needs contingency plans for sewage spills
Millions of gallons of untreated wastewater is being pumped into the Ala Wai Canal because of a sewer line break.
SEWAGE spills are no rarity on Oahu, but the substantial amount of raw wastewater now being pumped into the Ala Wai Canal
-- in the hub of Honolulu's tourist district -- is extraordinary.
Though Mayor Hannemann and other officials say there was no way to foresee the rupture of a four-decade-old sewer line, the city has been well aware of the aging system's overall instability.
Under these circumstances, contingency plans should be developed to handle large-scale failures like the one in Waikiki, if not for concerns about public health and pollution, then for the legal liabilities to which the city is vulnerable.
Oahu residents have come to expect frequent sewage discharges into the ocean and streams and on roadways during periods of heavy rainfall. In fact, a spell of wet weather has been triggering spills across the island for a number of weeks, most recently in Kailua, Waimanalo and other Windward locations.
None have matched the current flow into the Ala Wai. Officials estimate that since Friday, when a break was discovered in a line in Waikiki, as much as 10 million gallons of untreated sewage has been unloaded into the canal. By comparison, the city's nine major spills in 2003 totaled 7.8 million gallons.
City officials say they will need until the end of the week, if not longer, to fix the breach. During that time, Hannemann says there is "no other alternative" -- save to let sewage to back up in hotels, homes and businesses -- to pumping the wastewater into the Ala Wai, which he describes as "the most convenient outlet."
While the canal might be convenient, the sewage flow is polluting the ocean.
Surfers and others have been warned away from three breaks near the mouth of the Ala Wai, and though city officials maintain that beaches along the Waikiki Gold Coast aren't being affected, the state Department of Health has yet to determine whether swimming at Ala Moana, Magic Island or other shoreline areas is safe.
The antiquated wastewater system has been a vexing problem for years, exacerbated by the previous city administration's deferral of costly upgrades. As a result, the city has been identified as a consistent violator of the Clean Water Act, responsible for 50 offenses in an 18-month period from July 1, 2003 to Dec. 31, 2004.
Mindful of the problem, Hannemann has made repairs and improvements a priority. However, the frequent spills point to the need for the city to have plans to minimize damage when they happen because they will until the system is modernized.