City faces sewage spill suit

Three environmental groups are suing the city over hundreds of Oahu sewage spills since 1999 that they say endangered public health and closed beaches.

The state chapter of the Sierra Club, Hawaii's Thousand Friends and Our Children's Earth, a mainland-based group, cited more than 1,200 sewage spills in the lawsuit filed in federal court yesterday.

"Bringing lawsuits against the city is not our favorite way to do business. But when forced, we will step up to the plate," said Donna Wong, director of Hawaii's Thousand Friends.

"Having Kailua Bay closed two weeks is unacceptable," Wong said, referring to sewage spills after heavy rains last winter.

City Managing Director Ben Lee called the lawsuit "absolutely unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer dollars."

Lee blamed the city's lack of compliance with earlier lawsuit settlements on the weather and unavoidable delays in sewage construction projects. He said the city has spent $800 million on sewer improvements since 1994 and that "the city's waste-water system is in excellent shape and condition."

Lee also said he does not believe public health has been endangered.

An ultraviolet disinfection unit at the Sand Island sewer plant, originally slated to go into use two years ago, is "95 percent complete," he said.

Although the lawsuit asks that civil penalties of up to $32,500 a day be levied against the city, the plaintiffs do not really want the city to pay fines, Wong said. They want the city to comply with agreements reached in other citizen lawsuits in the 1990s.

In addition to spills from sewage lines, the new lawsuit faults the city for:

>> Being behind on required improvements to its Sand Island and Honouliuli sewage treatment plants.
>> Illegally dumping highly treated waste water that could be used for agriculture and landscape watering.
>> Not updating its storm water pollution control plan.
>> Inadequate reduction of grease entering sewers.

"The public already knows the damage one sewage spill can do to public health and our fragile marine environment, not to mention the huge amount of money spent on cleanup efforts and the harm to Hawaii's tourist industry," said Laura Edmunds, the Sierra Club's Blue Water Campaign coordinator.


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