Judge delays ruling in sewage spill lawsuit
A federal judge will not issue a ruling for another month or two on a lawsuit against the city over hundreds of sewage spills across Oahu since 1999.
The city has admitted violating the federal Clean Water Act in at least 99 sewage spills but is disputing an additional 207 spills that several environmental groups say endangered the public's welfare.
Judge David Ezra, who has presided over the groups' lawsuit for the last four years, appeared frustrated at times yesterday and said fixing the sewage system in Honolulu should be the city's top priority following years of neglect.
"In terms of priority, this comes first," Ezra said. "It's much more important to fix the sewers than to put in a light rail system. I'm not against the light rail, but we have a broken sewer system that needs to be repaired. I'd rather see the money that has to be paid by the taxpayers of the City and County of Honolulu put into the sewer system rather than go into the general fund of the U.S. government."
Ezra asked the lawyers representing the city and the environmental groups - the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club, Hawaii's Thousand Friends and Our Children's Earth Foundation - to meet over the next two weeks to issue statements on each of the spills in dispute.
After going over their statements - in addition to a document by the Justice Department expected to support the environmental groups - Ezra said he should have a ruling at least two months from now. Ezra can fine the city up to $32,000 for each violation, which could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.
"The real shame of this ... and it has nothing to do with the current administration, but for many years there was a disastrous deferred maintenance with the city and the sewage system," Ezra said. "That is now going to cost the taxpayers of this community multiple millions of dollars."
Instead of fining the city for the money to go to the federal government, Ezra recommended having the penalties go into fixing the city's sewer problems - a similar practice issued in another court ruling over the city's sewage system.
Jim Dragna, an attorney with Bingham & McCutchen representing the city, said the city has accepted violating the law 99 times, but said the other spills did not harm the environment. For example, some of the spills did not enter the ocean.
Dragna emphasized Mayor Mufi Hannemann's commitment to fixing the sewer system, citing more than $330 million the city is dedicating for upgrades.
"We are doing exactly what your honor is asking," said Dragna, who noted that Hannemann had raised sewer fees twice. "This is the city's No. 1 priority."
But Bill Tam, a lawyer with Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing representing the environmental groups, said the city still has violated the law and that this lawsuit is necessary to ensure future compliance and sewer upgrades.
"We're going to keep pressing this because priorities get lost," Tam said. "This is a long-term institutional problem."