Cesspool pumping
rates to rise

The city’s increase in fees
sparks concerns about
the environment

A hike in city rates for cesspool pumping has some Oahu residents worried that homeowners might let raw sewage overflow because they cannot afford the new prices.

Higher fees

A look at the city's rates for cesspool pumping:

Now: $106.88 per pumping, or an annual contract that costs $50 a month with up to three pumpings per month

July 1: $132.90 per pumping, no contracts

Starting July 1, the city will raise its fees for pumping cesspools to $132.90 per pumping -- higher than both the city's current $106.88 one-time pumping fee and the $125 that most commercial pumpers charge.

The city also will stop offering annual contract service, which offered up to three pumpings per month for a flat rate of $50 a month.

"I would think it could be a problem for people in my area who can't afford it and are on a fixed income," said North Shore Neighborhood Board member James Awai.

The new prices reflect the actual cost of the service, said Tim Houghton, deputy director of the city Department of Environmental Services. By comparison, the average home sewer bill runs about $33 a month, he said.

Oahu has an estimated 8,000 cesspools, and during the past year the city was called to pump about half of those, Houghton said. Several dozen private contractors handle the rest.

Most cesspools are on the Windward Coast north of Kaneohe and around the North Shore, plus portions of the Waianae Coast.

There are smaller areas with cesspools, including parts of Kaneohe, Kailua, Kaimuki and Aiea -- even at Black Point.

Five years ago, city crews pumped cesspools as many as 22,000 times a year, Houghton said. Last year, the number of pumpings had dropped to 6,000, he said.

The reduction came from a 2003 hike in rates, people switching to more environmentally friendly septic tanks or being linked to sewer systems, Houghton said.

When the City Council approved phased-in rate hikes in 2002, it intended to encourage people to switch to commercial pumpers and/or upgrade to septic tanks, which need pumping less often, Houghton said.

City cesspool customers also saw fee increases in 2003 and were informed of this year's increase at that time.

A cesspool has a porous bottom (and sometimes sides) that allow liquids from household sewage to percolate into the ground. Ideally, they would be cleaned only once a year. However, if clogged with solid waste or located in an area with a lot of ground water, the cesspools can require much more frequent pumping, Houghton said.

A septic tank releases a higher-quality effluent into the ground via a "leach field."

Lucy Hiraoka, who lives on a farm in Waimanalo, said her family knew the higher cesspool pumping bill was coming and can afford it.

"But what about the person who is barely making ends meet?" she asked. "I think they'll let it overflow."

One North Shore resident, who refused to give his name, voiced the same concern. "I think renters are going to say, 'To heck with it,' and just let it flow down the street," he said.

If they do, they face a up to $25,000 in fines, said Marshall Lum, who supervises enforcement for the state Department of Health's Wastewater Branch.

Lum said his branch investigates about five complaints of cesspool overflows in an average month. The call usually comes from a neighbor.

If cesspool owners do not correct the problem, they usually are fined $1,000 to $1,500, Lum said.

If the city's new rates result in more violations, his inspectors will be busier, he said.

Private contractors said they welcome new business.

"We're the only county in the state that subsidizes cesspools," said Ed Gonzales, owner of Gecko Enterprises, which operates three vacuum trucks.

Converting a cesspool to a septic tank costs at least $8,000, said several pumping contractors, although loans are available.


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