Sewer Showdown

This spring, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a tentative decision that the city must upgrade the Honouliuli Wastewater Treatment Plant in leeward Oahu to comply with the Clean Water Act. Mayor Mufi Hannemann says the improvements aren’t necessary, and would be too expensive. Who’s right?


Published:

John Kemmerer
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF THE WATER DIVISION, EPA REGION 9 OFFICE

Under the clean water act, municipal wastewater treatment plants are required to break down sewage using full secondary treatment. Since 1991, the Honouliuli treatment facility has been one of fewer than 40 plants nationwide operating under a variance that allows them to skip this step.

The EPA has tentatively decided not to renew this variance, because Honouliuli is not meeting the required state and federal water quality standards, established to protect recreation, human health and aquatic life.

Toxicity tests conducted on Hawaiian sea urchins (wana) in a laboratory setting found that diluted wastewater from Honouliuli caused harmful reproductive effects that violate state of Hawaii standards. Bacteria levels in the vicinity of Honouliuli’s outfall, both at and below the ocean’s surface, also exceed required limits.

We recognize that researchers have done studies that have not shown adverse impacts to the environment. But it’s important to note that the EPA’s decisions must be based on the specific criteria in the Clean Water Act. These criteria include meeting standards established to protect wildlife, and recreational users, before something happens. We don’t want to wait until there is a dead zone, or sick people.

The EPA agrees that fixing Honolulu’s sewage collection system is a huge priority. If the EPA’s final decision is to deny a renewed variance, we intend to work with the city and county to take into account the multiple priorities. We can’t ignore the need to improve sewage treatment, but we can apply lessons learned from cities around the country overcoming equal and greater challenges to upgrade their wastewater management.

Vic Moreland
AN ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER AND ASSISTANT RESEARCHER AT THE UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII’S WATER RESOURCES RESEARCH CENTER

there is no data that suggests that the effluent being produced by the Honouliuli plant has had any detrimental impact on Hawaii’s environment, or on residents. My co-workers at the Water Resource Research Center have been monitoring this area and others for more than 20 years, and have observed no recordable negative environmental impacts. The Barbers Point outfall has been in use since 1984; after more than 20 years, you would think we would have seen negative impacts by now. Why would the next 20 years be any different?

The EPA points to laboratory test results, but the use of wana for the toxicity testing has always been disputed due to the reproduction difficulties wana experience simply by being placed outside of their natural environment without proper acclimation.

Also, consider where the Honouliuli Wastewater Treatment Plant’s outfall is located. How many people are swimming and diving a mile and a half off of Barbers Point to a depth of 200 feet? To call that area recreational water based on current use doesn’t make a lot of sense.

There’s no question that we need to take a hard look at our wastewater infrastructure islandwide and improve it. But if the city is going to spend big money, it would be better spent repairing our wastewater collection systems, which have been long neglected and are in need of repair. Fixing our pipes would also improve the quality of the wastewater, even before it is processed at the treatment facilities, by preventing pesticides from seeping into the sewer lines along with groundwater. Prevention is the best solution here.

 


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