Hoses pumped sewage from an excavation hole yesterday at Sand Island Recreational Area as workers used backhoes to locate the broken sewer line, above.

Sewage keeps
beaches shut

The city might be fined
for the spill of nearly 2
million gallons

Almost 2 million gallons of raw sewage will keep swimmers and surfers out of the ocean between the airport and Kewalo Basin this weekend and could result in a fine against the city, said state and federal officials.

A pressurized-main break about 9 a.m. Thursday released between 1.7 million and 1.8 million gallons of untreated sewage, city Environmental Services Director Frank Doyle said yesterday.

It is not the largest volume of spilled sewage the city has experienced, Doyle said. There have been instances in the last decade when 3 million and 9 million gallons were released, he said.

City records of when and where those spills occurred were not available yesterday.

Operation of the city sewer system is regulated by several Environmental Protection Agency consent decrees that spell out improvements and repairs that the city must make to avoid penalties. The decrees are the outcome of lawsuits against the city over problems with its sewer system.

Until a spate of sewage spills during heavy rains in January and again last week closed island beaches, "they have been in compliance with the spill reduction element" of those decrees, said Libby Stoddard, an environmental engineer with the state Clean Water Branch.

However, given the number of sewage spills since January and the volume of the Sand Island spill, Stoddard said yesterday, "There's not much chance that this quarter (January-March) they will meet compliance with spill reduction."

One of many signs posted in the area warns people about the sewage spill.

Kathi Moore, regional EPA chief of Clean Water Act compliance, said, "Department of Health engineers will be working with the city to determine the cause of the spill."

An early analysis might be available to the EPA in a matter of weeks, but deciding whether circumstances merit a fine would take much longer, she said.

Moore noted that spills from aging pipes and sewage plants is a nationwide problem that is being targeted by EPA.

"Part of (Honolulu's) consent decree requires it to improve its infrastructure. It's a long process, and it takes a lot of money to fix these things," Moore said.

"They're getting better. They're doing a lot of hard work," Moore said of the city, "but we're not at the place where they've achieved the lowest possible number of spills."

Recent spills show the city still has a systemwide problem, said Gary Gill, a Honolulu City Council member from 1987 to 1994 and state Health Department deputy director of environmental health under Gov. Ben Cayetano.

"No doubt, repairs are continually taking place," Gill said, "but they haven't been taking place quickly enough or effectively enough to prevent these kinds of spills. There's no excuse for this stuff."

Naomi Arcand, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Oahu Chapter, said: "We think it's totally unacceptable. It seems like the city really has ongoing problems with sewage spills lately. ... This is a problem we need to take care of immediately. They need to do what it takes to get upgrades done as soon as possible."

Despite signs warning people off water activities due to sewage contamination from the Sand Island Recreation Area, surfers continued to catch waves yesterday at the adjacent Kewalo Basin Park.

The city has spent "$500 million since 1999 and will total probably spend $1.6 billion over a 20-year period," Doyle said yesterday. "We are addressing it. We're taking our lines that are most serious first."

Workers might not even get to the damaged pipe, which is buried 19 feet under Sand Island State Recreation Area, until today to search for what caused it to break, Doyle said.

The currents are carrying the Sand Island spill toward Ewa, Stoddard said. Its main effect would be expected on Keehi Lagoon, which already was posted as contaminated after recent rains.

Yesterday, the state Health Department removed Pokai Bay in Waianae and Pearl Harbor from the list of areas where swimming is not recommended, based on improvements in water conditions.

Still on the list through the weekend are Puha Stream, Waimanalo and Bellows beaches; Kawa Stream and Kaneohe Bay; Kaelepulu Stream and Kailua Bay; Kalihi Stream; Keehi Lagoon; Sand Island State Recreation Area; Kakaako Waterfront Park and Point Panic on Kewalo Basin.

Testing will be done daily until waters return to normal.

"I'm thinking if we don't have rain and don't have any more spills over the weekend, Monday would be good" for improved water quality, Stoddard said.


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