"It's not that the EPA isn't moving fast enough. It's that they're not moving at all."

Christopher Sproul
Attorney representing the plaintiffs

Ezra weighs matter
of sewage suit

U.S. District Judge David Ezra says "it is troublesome" that the city has not made progress despite promises in a 1995 consent decree to upgrade its aging sewage treatment system and reduce spills.

But Ezra said he will review legal arguments from the city and environmental groups over whether the city has violated the federal Clean Water Act through sewage spills and failure to meet standards for effluent discharges at the Sand Island and Honouliuli waste-water treatment plants.

Ezra made his comments yesterday at a hearing on the suit filed July 29 by the Sierra Club, Hawaii's Thousand Friends and Our Children's Earth. The Sierra Club and Hawaii's Thousand Friends filed suit 10 years ago that led to the 1995 consent decree.

According to the suit, the city had at least:

» 309 sewage spills in 1999.
» 305 spills in 2000.
» 237 spills in 2001.
» 194 spills in 2002.
» 183 spills in 2003.

Among them were spills as large as the Dec. 5, 2003, spill of 4.6 million gallons of raw sewage from the Hart Street pump station into Honolulu Harbor. Other spills created unhealthy conditions in nearshore ocean waters off the west, east and south coasts of Oahu, the suit says.

Even though the city has reduced the number of spills, the total volume of sewage spilled remains unacceptably high, said Christopher Sproul, a San Francisco-based attorney for the plaintiffs.

"It's not only that they've spilled millions of gallons since 1995," Sproul said yesterday in court. "They've spilled millions since we moved for summary judgment in January."

The city's private attorney, Jim Dragna of Los Angeles, argued that the new lawsuit repeats the same complaints addressed a decade ago.

"The 1995 EPA enforcement action regulates the progress of the city and county's waste-water collection system," Dragna said.

The city is in the fifth year of a 20-year program of improvements that will cost almost $1 billion, Dragna said. Though spills have happened in new locations, they are symptoms of the same problems identified in 1995, he said: shortfalls in the city's sewage infrastructure, maintenance and other activities to minimize spills, all things that the city is working on and the EPA is tracking.

"It's the same lawsuit as in 1995," so it should not be allowed to proceed, Dragna argued.

Although the issue is still spills from the city's sewer system, "we're looking at radically different facts," Sproul said. "It's not that the EPA isn't moving fast enough. It's that they're not moving at all."

A settlement conference between the city and the plaintiffs is set for May 19 but could be postponed if Ezra has not ruled by then on legal arguments by the two sides.

E-mail to City Desk


© Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- https://archives.starbulletin.com