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Mayor seeks new water standard


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POSTED: Monday, January 19, 2009

Mayor Mufi Hannemann is calling on the state Department of Health to update its water quality standards—an action that he believes could have affected a recent federal ruling forcing the city to upgrade two major waste-water treatment plants.

At an informational briefing last week to state House and Senate committees, Hannemann criticized the Health Department for its delay in updating its water quality laws in light of a recent final decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Hannemann said he had been asking the state to correct the standards, including one with a typographical error, for nearly a year. Because of this lag, he says, the city will likely have to raise sewer fees to pay for upgrades to the Honouliuli and Sand Island waste-water treatment plants.

"Here we are, one year later, faced with the potentially tremendous financial impact of a mandate to upgrade our two largest treatment plants to secondary, when all of this might have been averted had the DOH fulfilled its legal obligation to timely review their water quality standards and correct what they have acknowledged is a typographical error," Hannemann said.

The city will appeal a decision by the EPA that ruled discharge into the ocean exceeded bacteria and toxic levels set by the state and could harm the public.

According to federal law, states are encouraged to review their water quality standards every three years and change them if necessary. The last time Hawaii changed some of its standards was in 2004, according to Lawrence Lau, state deputy director for environmental health.

But it is unclear and unlikely whether the changes in the state standards would have ultimately affected the EPA's decision, said EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi.

"We evaluated it both ways," Higuchi said. "It still didn't really alter our final decision. It's really the city's choice to use what they want for their appeal."

Lau acknowledged that there was at least one typographical error in the state's water quality standard: a misplaced decimal point in a figure denoting safe levels of pesticide in fish.

However, in the EPA's report for Honouliuli, it found that the pesticide levels exceeded the state's standard even with the intended amount.

"Even with the typographical corrections, even with the updated standards, there would still be some exceedances, maybe not as many as before," Lau said. "I do agree we should update the standards, and we're working on that."

Lau said the department had some personnel changes in 2005 that impeded its ability to update the water standards.

The EPA ruled that the city needs to upgrade these treatment plants to include an additional level of filtering, called "secondary treatment." The city estimates construction for the upgrades costs about $1.2 billion.