Upgrading sewage treatment plants is wasteful and unnecessary
Last December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its tentative denial of Honolulu's waiver for the operation of the Sand Island Waste Water Treatment Plant with less than secondary treatment. A final decision to deny this waiver would force the city to spend about $800 million to add facilities that provide no benefits to the marine environment and produce a tremendous increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The denial of this waiver would have a significant impact on Oahu's residents, visitors and businesses on Oahu.
Section 301(h) of the Clean Water Act creates a process to allow publicly owned wastewater treatment plants that discharge treated effluent to waive the requirements for secondary treatment. The Sand Island plant has operated with a waiver since 1982. For the last 17 years, scientific studies of the outfall ecosystem show that primary treatment continues to provide adequate protection of the deep marine environment. The state's bacterial standards for recreational waters, the most stringent in the country, are met. I am confident we are meeting the Clean Water Act objectives of protecting public health and the environment.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann has made infrastructure improvement one of his top priorities. The city had to raise sewer fees twice during his tenure to ensure that we could fund improvements to our collection system, which was suffering from what the EPA called "decades of neglect." This is where the greatest threat to public health and safety lies. Raw sewage spills from the collection system result in a greater risk of exposure to the community. This is where we need to focus our attention and our limited financial resources.
That said, we have not ignored our treatment system. More than $450 million in upgrades have been made to the Sand Island plant since the most recent waiver was issued in 1998. This work includes improvements to three pump stations, addition of two new clarifiers, chemical treatment facility improvements, a biosolids conversion facility, and an ultraviolet disinfection and effluent pump facility.
The construction of secondary treatment capabilities would cost ratepayers $800 million. A tentative denial was also issued for the Honouliuli Wastewater Treatment Plant, for which $400 million in construction costs are estimated.
The combined cost of $1.2 billion for secondary treatment at both plants would require significant additional fee increases.
Years of monitoring the marine environment around the outfall and near the shore show no negative impacts. There is one laboratory toxicity test on sea urchins that the Sand Island plant fails. However, it is not an EPA-approved test and no sea urchins live at the depth of the outfall. Also, the plant passes toxicity tests on other approved species that are tested. More importantly, no beach has ever been closed because of the plant's operations, but many beaches have been closed because of collection system failures.
The ocean environment is not harmed by the effluent from Sand Island's primary treatment facility and a secondary treatment facility would not make it substantially better. In fact, secondary treatment has a harmful environmental consequence by contributing to global warming. It would increase our island's greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 6,600 additional automobiles for Sand Island and 4,000 for Honouliuli and would require significantly more electricity than current operations.
The EPA is holding a public hearing on its tentative denial at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Washington Middle School. The mayor and I will be there to ask the EPA not to burden our ratepayers with this unnecessary and expensive action. I urge you to do the same.
Eric S. Takamura is the director of the city Department of Environmental Services.