Sewer repair estimate bulges to $300 million
Meeting mandates from both the courts and federal agencies will add to city costs
The city might have to spend about $300 million to fix aging sewer force mains as part of a federal settlement, while also facing large fines for clean water violations at sewage treatment plants.
The City Council, meeting as the Executive Matters Committee, gave tentative approval yesterday to a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agreeing to rebuild four major force mains, or pressurized sewer lines.
And on Monday, U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra issued a ruling that agreed with environmentalists on a stricter way of counting certain violations of the federal Clean Water Act at the Sand Island and Honouliuli waste-water treatment plants.
Donna Wong, executive director of Hawaii's Thousand Friends, called Ezra's ruling "absolutely major" because it establishes "a commonsense methodology" for counting violations of the law.
"This court finds that a violation of a monthly average will be counted as a violation of every day of the month," Ezra wrote.
The city had argued that violating a monthly average should count as one violation.
Because the city failed to meet a July 1, 2002, deadline to complete an ultraviolet disinfecting unit at the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, Ezra also ruled in the plaintiffs favor that each day since the deadline should count as a day of violation.
"We respect Judge Ezra's ruling, although we do disagree with portions of it," city spokesman Bill Brennan said. He also noted that the Sand Island disinfection facility is complete and undergoing testing.
Wong said she believes the environmental groups' 2004 lawsuit helped push the proposed city-EPA settlement.
City Council members voted 8-1 to take up the proposed force main settlement at the May 2 Council meeting. Most members declined to comment on what was said in a closed-door session.
"From my vantage point, I think people have a right to know," said Councilman Charles Djou, an attorney. He said the settlement between EPA and the city has already been reached, pending Council confirmation, and he does not believe commenting on it will jeopardize the deal.
Djou estimated that the proposed settlement might resolve "10 percent" of the city's sewage issues.
EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi agreed. The proposed settlement is not the "global" settlement of which Mayor Mufi Hannemann has spoken, nor does it ensure that the city will face no monetary fines for the 48 million-gallon Beach Walk spill in March 2006, he said. "And that's all I can tell you."
Force mains are the sewer lines that can cause the most catastrophic spills if they are broken.
A state Department of Health Clean Water Branch employee confirmed that the force mains to be fixed in the settlement agreement are at Beach Walk, Ala Moana Boulevard, Hart Street and Kailua-Kaneohe. The agreement also requires the city to further assess force mains at Kahala and Waimalu.
The estimated cost of the work, some of which is in the mayor's 2008 budget proposal, is $300 million, Djou said.
PUBLIC CAN ADDRESS EPA AT HEARING
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking public comments on its tentative decision to require an upgrade to secondary treatment at the Honouliuli Wastewater Treatment Plant. The plant's waiver of those national Clean Water Act standards has expired.
Comments can be made at a public hearing at 7 p.m. May 15 at Kapolei Middle School or by May 29 via mail or e-mail to Sara Roser, EPA Region 9, WTR-5, 75 Hawthorne St., San Francisco, CA 94105; or R-9301h-Comments@epa.gov.