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Toxic Neighbors?

Have a sewage problem? Look next door.


Lately, residents of Keolu Drive in Kailua have witnessed sewage exploding into the streets. "I saw two manholes shoot up and sewage go everywhere," says Michael Dudley, a resident at the Windsurf apartments, Kailua. Ten city trucks were called to pump sewage from his property as nearby storm-water ponds overflowed with water and sewage during heavy rain last year.

The city was initially blamed for the flooding problems. But the real problem turned out to be closer to home-private residents have been diverting runoff rain water into the sewage system, instead of storm drains, causing about half of the smelly flooding.

Ken Kawahara, acting branch head at the city's Division of Environmental Quality, explains, "On average, the state's largest treatment plant in Sand Island receives

70 million gallons of wastewater per day. During wet weather, 200 million gallons are processed, almost triple the normal amount, so you know a lot of rain water is getting into the system."

The results when heavy rain sewage spills into Kailua Bay from Ka‘elepulu Canal. Photo: Scott Burch

Storm water normally goes directly to the ocean with little or no treatment, but when residents send rain water to the sewage system instead of down storm drains, they overload the system.

Dudley has heard of people using the sewers to drain their yards. "When people's lots flood, they open their sewer cleanouts, allowing storm water to enter the sewage," he says.

Cleanout caps are located in the front and back of most residential homes. Plumbers use the cleanout as an access point when there is a blockage in the line, but they can also let all sorts of things go into the sewers, toys, branches and rocks, which can block sewer lines.

Some local plumbers may simply be unaware of the effect extra water has on the system. Rain-gutter connections hooked into the sewer are most likely professional jobs, says Lori Kahikina-Moniz, assistant chief at the city's Collection System Maintenance. "My honest opinion is that when homeowners buy the property, they don't realize what they're doing. You can't just punch a hole in your driveway and tap into the sewer line."

In order to find illegal hook-ups and cracks the city pumps a white, nontoxic

liquid smoke into the sewer. A crew of three city and county employees look for plumes of smoke at each residence, documenting violations with cameras. Homeowners have 30 days to fix any problems.

This month, the city will conduct tests in Wahiawa and Kailua. So far, approximately 10,000 homes have been smoke tested and 900 violations found. "Right now, we are concentrating on areas that were hit with wet-weather spills, but eventually the tests will be scheduled regularly on an islandwide basis," says Kahikina-Moniz.

The cost to disconnect a rain gutter is usually less than $100, much cheaper than the maximum fine of $25,000 per day, per violation, which the city can bill negligent residents. Kawahara says he hasn't had to impose a fine on any residential property, yet. "Most people are willing to comply," he says.

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Honolulu Magazine March 2018
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