Hawaii cannot afford to ignore sewer problems
THE CITY'S recent Kaiolu sewer line break
and dumping of more than 10 million gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal is not an isolated incident, but part of an ongoing problem that has been years in the making. In March 2004, the main line that transports pumped sewage underneath Honolulu Harbor to the city's largest treatment plant on Sand Island ruptured, spilling 2 million gallons of raw sewage into the harbor and ocean and closing beaches from Point Panic to Keehi Lagoon. The city has had several other million-gallon-plus spills. For years, the city has spilled sewage on average of about once every two days.
The problem is not the fault of the current city administration, but the result of decades of poor maintenance, neglect and raiding of sewer funds. Sewage is not "sexy." No one holds a parade or gives out leis when sewer lines are properly maintained and when the system runs as it should. Sewer lines are underground and easy to ignore, except when, as with the Ala Wai Canal spill, raw sewage is flowing into streams, canals, harbors and surf spots.
The city has an aging and poorly maintained sewer system and inadequate staff to monitor lines for grease buildup or root blockages, prevent pump station failures, identify collapsing sewer lines, and stop rainwater flowing into leaky sewer lines. As a result, it has become routine for us to read of, or experience personally, raw sewage streaming out of manholes, line breaks and pump station holding wells into public streets, streams, beaches, homes and businesses.
In 2004, the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter, Hawaii's Thousand Friends and Our Children's Earth filed a lawsuit to address these spills and other Clean Water Act violations relating to the city's sewer and wastewater treatment systems. In 2005, Judge David Ezra held that the citizens' sewage spill claims should be litigated as part of another case -- a case brought by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Hawaii Department of Health in 1994 against the city for similar past sewage spill violations. We are currently seeking leave to participate in that case.
Since 2004, we have repeatedly communicated to the city our desire to work out a settlement that would focus on a pro-active solution with citizen participation and support, rather than waste money on attorneys' fees and costs. Yet the city has opposed the citizens' recent motion to become parties to the EPA/DOH lawsuit, hired one of the nation's largest law firms to defend it and allocated more than $2.5 million to be paid to that law firm -- money that could be spent fixing the problem, rather than denying responsibility or refusing to allow concerned citizens a voice in protecting their families, their communities and their environment.
In any case, we will continue to press for a solution. Years of experience has taught that vigilant citizen involvement and public scrutiny are necessary to prompt city attention and action. If we continue to underfund the sewer system and the imprudent practices of past administrations, we will get what we pay for -- a sewer system resembling that of the 1880s in which raw sewage pours into our waterways, streams and ocean. We cannot afford this price, as our island community depends on clean water for our quality of life and as a principal draw for the tourism that provides our economic mainstay.
Jeff Mikulina is executive director of Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter; Donna Wong is executive director of Hawaii's Thousand Friends; and Tiffany Schauer is executive director of Our Children's Earth.