Waiver no more


POSTED: Sunday, February 01, 2009

For people who use the ocean for recreation, as well as for managers of Honolulu's wastewater treatment plants, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's announcement was stunning. The EPA no longer would allow the city to discharge primary-treated wastewater into the deep ocean, something that had been permitted since 1990. Instead, the city would be required to upgrade the plants to secondary treatment.

It was stunning to city officials because scientists told them secondary treatment is not needed, and because the city estimated the sewer fees would rise to $300 to pay for the upgrades.

It was stunning to people who use the ocean for recreation because of the implications for health and the environment.

Regardless of whether you agree with the EPA's decision, it is important to understand this complex issue. A savvy buyer is not swayed by the ad hype, knowing that the “;200 watt”; amplifier puts out only 100 watts at 1 percent distortion. Similarly, the citizen needs to be savvy and understand exactly what his or her sewer fees are buying and are not buying.

To this end, I have prepared a series of frequently asked questions and their answers in order to make the secondary waiver situation understandable to the general public. The answers are based primarily on the EPA's publicly released documents on its decision, but also on other related public information.

The purpose of this article is not to persuade one way or another, but to make sure that residents are fully informed of the reasons for denial of the waiver, so they know both the features and the limitations they might be paying for, and so they have the full disclosure of any danger to their personal health or the environment they love.

I am an engineer employed by the city for sewage, air pollution and solid waste support involving the wastewater treatment plants. However, this article represents my personal opinion and is not an official position by the city.

I will start off by answering some general questions, and then discuss water quality standards for bacteria, dieldrin and chlordane, toxicity and ammonia.

  General Questions

1. For what reasons did the EPA deny the waivers from secondary treatment for the Sand Island and Honouliuli Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTPs)?

For not meeting water quality standards for whole effluent toxicity to organisms (sea urchin test); chlordane and dieldrin; ammonia; and, for Honouliuli WWTP only, for bacteria. The EPA said these items prevent protection and propagation of a balanced, indigenous population of fish, shellfish and wildlife, and will not allow recreation in and on the water.

2. So all the data indicates that the best course of action is to go to secondary treatment?

No, the EPA clearly indicated the decision is not based on weigh-of-evidence, but on the specific criterion that no water quality standard can be exceeded. Suppose you had to pick a starting quarterback for your football team. The weight-of-evidence method would be to compare all the strengths and weaknesses of the two quarterbacks, and pick the one you feel would win the most games.

The specific criteria method would be to have set criteria, such as the quarterback has to be at least 6 feet tall, run a mile in 4 minutes, weigh a minimum of 180 pounds, etc. If the quarterback does not meet any of the criteria, he is not selected.

3. Why did the EPA use this method to make a determination?

The EPA said these are the rules set up by the law. It said secondary treatment must be used if any single water quality standard cannot be met.

4. But isn't this good for the environment?

This is a method to make decisions about and set goals for environmental protection. The effect on the environment would depend upon the appropriateness of the water quality standards used to make the decisions.

5. Sewage polluted our waters in 2006 during a massive sewage spill in Waikiki and the public was kept out of the water for days. Will denial of the waiver prevent such incidents?

No. The waiver is for treatment after the wastewater is collected. The spill occurred during the collection process. An analogy of the spill is if you dropped your groceries while carrying them from the car to your kitchen. An analogy of the waiver is if you are required to buy a new stove. No matter what stove you buy, it won't affect whether you drop the groceries. Those are two separate issues.

6. Isn't it about time the city stopped operating under a temporary waiver and upgraded to secondary treatment like it was supposed to?

There is no temporary waiver. The EPA has indicated the waiver previously granted is like a driver's license. It is only good for a certain number of years, but it can be renewed indefinitely as long as the driver meets the qualifications.

7. Isn't it better that the city remove all the crap from the wastewater instead of discharging it into the ocean?

Secondary treatment will remove more organic material. The measurements for this material are tests called Biochemical Oxygen Demand and Total Suspended Solids. However, the denial of the waivers were not based on BOD or TSS levels. The EPA indicated both BOD and TSS met the water quality standards. Therefore, the existing level of organic material in the wastewater discharge is not considered harmful to the ocean.

8. What is the next step?

The city can appeal the decision to the Environmental Appeals Board by Feb. 9 on the basis of: a) the EPA had interpreted any fact or law incorrectly, or b) if the EPA made a discretionary or policy decision that can be reviewed.

9. When will secondary treatment be used?

Even if all appeals are completed, or if the city agrees with the EPA's decision, it will take several years to plan, design, fund and construct secondary treatment facilities. The EPA also has indicated it would consider the city's economic situation and need to upgrade the collection system in determining the schedule for secondary treatment.

  Exceeding bacteria Water Quality Standards

10. Do the EPA findings mean that I'm in danger of bacteria infection if I swim in the ocean off Waikiki?

No, the EPA has indicated that the Sand Island WWTP discharge, which is disinfected during treatment, meets water quality standards for bacteria. Therefore, all beaches and waters off south central Oahu do not have bacteria problems due to the wastewater discharge. They might have bacteria from other sources such as rainfall runoff or swimmers in the water, though. It is the Honouliuli WWTP discharge, which is at the Ewa side of the island, which EPA says exceeds the bacteria limits.

11. Does this mean I'm in danger of bacteria sewage infection if I swim off of the Ewa beaches?

No. Monitoring data at the shoreline indicates most indicator bacteria come from the harbor near Iroquois Beach and Hammer Point, and not from the outfall.

12. Where are the high bacteria areas, then?

Nearer the Honouliuli WWTP's outfall diffuser, which runs from about 7,600 to 9,100 feet (1.4 to 1.7 miles) offshore.

13. Does this mean that bacteria standards were exceeded in the past 17-plus years we were given the waivers?

No. The state bacteria standards up to 2004 only applied up to 300 meters (1,000 feet) from shore. In 2004, the federal government created new standards, which apply from 300 meters to 3 miles. It is primarily from these new standards that the EPA has denied the waiver for Honouliuli WWTP.

14. So if I touched the ocean water over the diffuser, I would be contacting sewage bacteria?

Not necessarily. The sewage is discharged 200 feet below the surface and is estimated to reach the surface infrequently. However, the EPA has indicated that outside of an allowed dilution zone, standards must be met at all times and and at all depths of the water. In 2008, depending on the offshore monitoring station, 88 percent to 100 percent of the samples taken at the surface met bacteria standards applicable only to crowded beaches.

15. So at a depth of 200 feet over the diffuser, then I would surely encounter the bacteria?

Yes. At that depth, you also would see the outfall and the discharge, and should avoid contact.

  exceeding chlordane and dieldrin limits

16. What are chlordane and dieldrin?

They are pesticides previously used in Hawaii.

17. Does this mean I'm being poisoned by the discharge?

No. The standards that are exceeded are for bioaccumulation in fish. These are much lower than levels that could cause acute poisoning. The concern is that bioaccumulation in fish will increase the chances of cancer for people who eat the fish. The National Primary Drinking Water regulations allow a maximum contaminant level of chlordane in drinking water of 2.0 ug/L (micrograms per liter). The Hawaii water quality standard for chlordane to prevent fish bioaccumulation in the ocean is much lower, at 0.000016 ug/L.

Dieldrin is not regulated under the National Primary Drinking Water regulations based on evaluation of the risks and likely occurrences in drinking water. However, the EPA “;drinking water equivalent level”; for dieldrin is calculated at 2.0 ug/L . The Hawaii water quality standard for dieldrin to prevent fish bioaccumulation in the ocean is much lower, at 0.000025 ug/L.

18. Does this mean the discharge will cause me to get cancer if I eat fish caught in ocean?

This would depend on how well the water quality limit correlates to bioaccumulation in fish tissue. Testing of fish liver (where bioaccumulation is pronounced) and muscle tissue for fish caught near the outfalls have rarely shown detectable levels of chlordane or dieldrin. So there is probably no immediate danger.

19. Why does the wastewater contain chlordane and dieldrin?

This is likely due to existing pesticides in the soil, which seep into the wastewater lines. Neither chlordane nor dieldrin is currently allowed to be used in the United States.

20. So going to secondary treatment will allow us to meet the chlordane and dieldrin water quality standards?

Not necessarily. The criterion EPA used to deny the waiver is whether a water quality standard was exceeded, not whether secondary treatment would allow the standard to be met.

The EPA has indicated that it believes secondary treatment should remove some of the pesticides since they tend to stick to solid particles and secondary treatment might remove more solid particles. However, the EPA has indicated additional treatment may be needed to meet the standards.

21. So if we remove all the chlordane and dieldrin from the wastewater, the ocean will be cleansed of the pesticides?

Not necessarily. Since the pesticides are probably in the soil, rainfall runoff carrying any soil would likely continue to contribute chlordane and dieldrin to the ocean.

  Failure of sea urchin test

22. Does failure of the sea urchin test mean the sewage is killing off our beautiful marine life?

No. First, annual studies by scientists required by the permit of fish and sea bottom life have never shown any creatures having died from the sewage. Studies show ample marine life near the discharge. The EPA's position is that because the studies show no problems once a year that doesn't mean problems don't occur elsewhere at different times of the year. The EPA also has the position that denial of the waiver is to prevent such problems from ever happening.

Second, the toxicity tests that failed the limit involve determining whether sea urchins have reduced egg fertilization when exposed to the sewage compared to exposure to water. The results show that the wastewater does affect the fertilization. This does not indicate the sea urchin will die or will not reproduce.

In addition, the study is done in a laboratory and is not a study of sea urchin life in the ocean. There continues to be enough sea urchins living in the ocean that are collected regularly to perform the toxicity tests in the laboratory.

It should also be noted that whole effluent toxicity tests using another animal, the water flea, do not show toxicity. This different result is due to different sensitivities of organisms to different chemicals.

  Exceeding Ammonia Water Quality Standards

23. Why is ammonia important?

Ammonia contains nitrogen, a plant nutrient. This can cause overgrowth of algae, which can smother marine life. Algae blooms have occurred off the neighbor islands in the past when wastewater injected into wells found its way to the coastline, probably via lava tubes.

24. Does this mean the ocean life is being destroyed by the wastewater discharge?

No. There is no evidence of continuous algae blooms near the sewage outfalls. Measurements of chlorophyll in the ocean, a measure of plant life, does not show an existing algae bloom. Satellite photos do not show an algae bloom.

In addition, there has never been a report of an algae bloom suspected to be caused by the existing discharges.

Last, while the goal of the water quality standard for ammonia is to prevent algae blooms, how well the numerical limit chosen actually correlates with algae blooms is not known. So far, the limit has been exceeded with no evidence of algae bloom occurring.

The EPA's position is that it is required by law to deny the waiver if the limit is exceeded regardless of whether any algae bloom actually has been detected. Also, the EPA's position is that just because an algae bloom hasn't been detected, that doesn't mean it is not present somewhere or will not be present in the future.

25. So by going to secondary treatment, we could at least meet the ammonia standard?

No. As indicated above, the criterion the EPA used to deny the waiver is whether any water quality standard was exceeded, not whether secondary treatment would allow the standard to be met. Secondary treatment generally must be supplemented with other treatment or modified to remove a significant amount of nutrients.


Jared Lum is a city environmental engineer. He submitted this column as a private individual; the views here are his, not the city's.