Kokua Line

By June Watanabe

Controversy emanates
from Lake Wilson stink

Question: My wife and I moved into an apartment near Lake Wilson in Wahiawa a few months ago. Every night, while trying to sleep, a disgusting sewage smell filled our apartment. It happened every night. Like clockwork, the smell came floating in around 11 p.m. and again at about 5 a.m. We started closing all the windows and sliding doors to keep the smell out. I've been told that the Wahiawa Wastewater Treatment Plant dumps sewage into the lake. Is this legal? And do they have to do it at night when everyone is home?

State health officials and the owner of Lake Wilson dispute the source of a foul smell coming from the lake.

Answer: Treated sewage is allowed to be discharged into the lake, under a permit issued by the state Department of Health, although the practice is being challenged by the lake's private owner.

However, whether the smell is the result of the sewage or "swamp gas" is a point of contention between health officials and lake owner Wahiawa Water Co., a subsidiary of Dole Food Co. Hawaii.

Dole, in fact, is continuing to "vigorously" contest the city's discharge of sewage into Lake Wilson, said Brian Orlopp, vice president and general manager of Dole Food Co. Hawaii. "Dole contends this practice is wrongful and has not been authorized in any way, and this is a subject of continuing litigation."

Orlopp said the city points to a 1929 Outfall Pipe Easement agreement as allowing it to continue to discharge effluent into the lake. But Dole maintains that the city does not have either a state or National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit to discharge the wastewater into the lake, he said. He declined to provide any more details, saying it is company policy not to comment on ongoing litigation.

State health officials say the discharge is legal under a 1998 consent decree between Castle & Cooke (former owner of Dole Food) and the Health Department.

They also maintain it's not the sewage discharge that's causing the smell. They say it's hydrogen sulfide, otherwise known as "swamp gas" -- produced when decaying matter at the bottom of the lake is stirred up as water is drawn for irrigation and exposed to air.

The Health Department has investigated odor complaints near Lake Wilson (also called Wahiawa Reservoir) a number of times over the past several years. Inspectors have generally attributed the odor, likened to rotten eggs or a burning match head, to the churning up of bottom water.

The effluent discharged from the city's wastewater treatment plant does not have "an odor as strong as the discharge from the reservoir," said Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo.

She acknowledged that "it is possible that solids from the decades of discharge from the plant may contribute to the decaying matter at the bottom of the reservoir." But the foul odor itself comes from the exposure of the decaying matter to air, she said, and that, health officials maintain, is caused when Dole draws water for irrigation.

Gary Gill, Health Department deputy director for environmental health, said that problem could be averted if Dole would repair "frozen" gates at the dam where lake water is drained into the irrigation system.

"My understanding is that all those gates have been frozen shut except the one at the bottom," Gill said. "So when they drain the lake into the irrigation ditch, they're draining from the bottom of the lake and that's where the stinky water is."

Orlopp, however, said that explanation doesn't hold water.

"Dole has been draining water out of the lake using only the bottom discharge for the last 40-plus years," he said. "Over the past several years Dole has received no complaints about the bottom draw agitating sediments, causing the foul smell."

But here's the situation: The state does not regulate odors from the lake.

It does regulate water quality for streams and other water "of the United States," Gill said, so the concern is that such bottom water from Lake Wilson does not make its way into Kaukonahua Stream, which would then likely violate water-quality standards.

Gill said that is not the case, so, at this point, all the Health Department can do is recommend to Dole that it avoid taking water from the bottom of the lake.

But, again, the issue goes back to the discharge of wastewater into the lake.

Okubo also said the city's wastewater plant has been upgraded so that the quality of the water being discharged is "higher" than it has been in the past. Also, she said the city recently completed a new outfall system that discharges treated wastewater deep into the lake.

"The old system included an outfall pipe at the surface of the lake, she said. "The deep discharge and higher level of treatment likely reduces any odors from the treatment plant."

As for when the effluent is discharged, Okubo said treated sewage is continuously discharged.

Orlopp, meanwhile, noted that Dole is working on a long-range plan with the federal government, Wahiawa community groups and others "to effectively clean up Lake Wilson by diverting wastewater" from going into the lake, "so it can be revitalized for recreational use."

Lake Wilson was built as an irrigation reservoir for sugarcane in 1905-06 by Castle & Cooke.

Although privately owned, it is managed by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources as a public recreational fishing area. It is the largest freshwater "impoundment" in the state, with about 20 miles of shoreline and a capacity to hold 3 billion gallons of water, according to DLNR.

During times when there is no wind, "the smell does come out," said Glenn Higashi, an aquatics specialist with DLNR.

What aggravates the situation is when there are no trade winds to blow the smell downwind from nearby condominiums.

"But when it's still, the smell rises," Higashi said. "We find the complaint more so during August and September -- still months of the year when you don't have the regular tradewinds and it gets real hot and still."


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