Time has come to improve city’s sewage treatment system
A federal agency has refused to exempt a city wastewater treatment plant from Clean Water Act standards.
MAYOR Mufi Hannemann is understandably disturbed by the federal government's admonition about outdated conditions
at a city sewage treatment plant.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's tentative refusal of a variance to exempt the Honouliuli Wastewater Treatment Plant from federal standards could mean the city will have to upgrade it -- at an enormous cost.
Even with steep sewer-fee increases Hannemann has proposed, the city would be hard pressed to raise the money -- $400 million by his estimate -- needed for the fixes. Adding to the mayor's headache is that the city's Sand Island treatment plant could also be denied an exemption later this year. A second upgrade could boost the city's costs to more than $1 billion.
Left to reap the results of years of neglect by previous administrations, Hannemann said the agency's call for upgrading Honouliuli was "unreasonable, untimely, unfair and unnecessary," adding he is considering legal challenges.
Fairness aside, the city has been given wide latitude in meeting the standards of the Clean Water Act for more than 16 years. The Honouliuli plant pumps minimally treated effluent only about 1.7 miles out to sea and though the mayor disputes the EPA's pollution findings, the ocean cannot be treated as a giant toilet for much longer without adverse effects. And as the city's population grows, the plants will have to take in and process increasing amounts of waste.
The cost of upgrading the plants alone are formidable. But the EPA's action comes just as the mayor has been vigorously pushing to fix problems that plague the aging system while fending off lawsuits and potential fines for a massive spill in Waikiki last year.
Of Hannemann's proposed capital improvement budget of $724 million, close to half would go to sewer work. He has asked for a sharp boost in sewer fees that would double residents' monthly charges in four years, an unpopular move that has drawn protests and criticism. The fee increase would raise $318 million in the year 2011, far short of the costs for even one plant fix-up.
It's easy to see why Hannemann might want to challenge the EPA, but rather than pay lawyers and consultants and face more penalties, he would do better to work with federal and state officials to bring Oahu's sewer facilities into compliance.
The state should help out financially. Even though the waste system is the city's responsibility, as the state's economic hub, Honolulu deserves some assistance.
Hannemann has cast his administration as one focused on basic services, spurning what he views as tax dollars wasted on cosmetic "vision" projects by previous leadership. He has said he would be rather be known as "Mayor Sewer" and as unglamorous as that might be, it would be a respectable title if he cleaned up the mess he inherited.