Cost of not treating our sewage would be higher
Editor's note: The Environmental Protection Agency issued a tentative decision in March to deny a waiver to the federal Clean Water Act allowing the city's Honouliuli Wastewater Sewage Plant to treat sewage at a primary level. The EPA will hold a public hearing to take testimony on the decision at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Kapolei Middle School.|
THE RECENT sharp exchanges between the governor of Hawaii and the mayor of Honolulu about cleaning up Honolulu's sewage should have caught every resident's rapt attention. Surely the mayor's eye-popping statement that your annual wastewater bill could rise to $3,600 is enough to startle anyone.
This is not a new issue. When the federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1970, cities around the country got a heads-up that their nasty habit of pouring untreated sewage into nearby marshes and rivers was at an end. All cities had to install secondary treatment that severely limited the flood of sewage going into our waterways.
The act was later amended to allow an exemption from secondary treatment for ocean dumping -- if certain conditions were met. Honolulu has been operating on such a waiver until this year, when the Environmental Protection Agency informed the city that the waiver was going to be rescinded.
The mayor's response was that dumping virtually untreated sewage in the ocean does no harm. Not so, said the governor, speaking for the state, also a regulator of water quality. Former Mayor Frank Fasi did not want to deal with this expensive issue and neither did his successor, Jeremy Harris. Now comes Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who, in all fairness, is left holding the bag.
So where does this leave us? The Clean Water Act says sewage must meet certain specific standards of secondary treatment. Does it? So far, the tests show that not only does our sewage not meet the secondary standards, it also does not always meet the much more lenient primary standards that only call for removal of sticks, stones and grit.
So why would the city resist upgrading to secondary treatment? The mayor claims the cost will be colossal and that it is unnecessary. Hawaii's Thousand Friends and the Sierra Club have been crossing swords with the city in court on this point for many years. We say this untreated sewage poses a health hazard to ocean life and to the residents and visitors who frequent Oahu's beaches or use our near-shore ocean waters -- surfers, paddlers, boaters and fishermen. We say there is a lei of kukai around our island created by sewage treatment plants and run-off from antiquated septic and cesspool systems.
We believe this because the bacterial counts of many of our near-shore waters are way above the state and federal limits. Tests conducted by the city and the state show high levels of bacteria in many places, including Waikiki.
If the outfalls reach far enough out to sea, as the city claims, how can sewage affect us? The answer is basic physics. The outfalls are too shallow, above the cold-water boundary below which the sewage would cool and sink. During our frequent Kona winds, the warm sewage rises to the surface and is driven to shore by the winds. This is not a matter of politics but a matter of fact, and like it or not, the city must deal with it.
Honolulu has nothing to gain and everything to lose by being surrounded by untreated sewage. Honolulu's elected officials have had a long holiday from this responsibility, and it's now time to cease the grumbling and begin resolving this serious and probably expensive problem.
Fred Madlener submitted this essay on behalf Hawaii's Thousand Friends, Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter and Our Children's Earth Foundation. Madlener is a board member of Hawaii's Thousand Friends.