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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 30, 2003

Sand Island plant seeks new permit

By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Amid heavy federal pressure to complete delayed upgrade work at the Sand Island sewage treatment plant, the city is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a new permit to continue operating the facility.

City officials say they are confident that the 70 million gallons of treated wastewater discharged into the ocean from the plant every day do not threaten public health or marine life.

But they acknowledged that the plant is in continuous violation of its current federal permit because construction work on components meant to better filter and purify the effluent have fallen far behind schedule.

"We're going to be out of compliance until this is all finished, but the fact of the matter is the plant's performing according to standards and it's meeting its conditions," said city Environmental Services director Frank Doyle.

The five-year permit, which expires in November, required a $77 million sewage disinfection unit to be completed nearly one year ago. But construction problems and a contract dispute have delayed the project until at least October 2004.

The entire upgrade project is one of the most expensive and complex in state history, and is expected to cost $390 million, city wastewater construction assistant chief Eldon Franklin said. Of that total, nearly $350 million is for improvements required by the current EPA permit, he said.

The city is also seeking renewal of a special EPA waiver that allows the plant to dump sewage that has been filtered to a lesser extent than is normally required. Less than 50 of the nation's 16,000 wastewater plants operate under such a waiver, according to the EPA.

Doyle said it could cost up to $500 million to upgrade the plant from "primary" to "secondary" treatment, and that any environmental benefit would likely be minimal.

The city has long contended that more though treatment is not needed because the effluent from Sand Island is discharged in deep ocean waters from a pipe that extends nearly two miles offshore.

Though the city is required to monitor waters around the discharge pipe for pollutants, an EPA study found last year that the testing would not necessarily reveal when effluent entered recreational waters.

Plants with secondary treatment typically discharge wastewater into shallower coastal waters or rivers, or use treated water for irrigation, Doyle said.

The Sand Island facility treats about two-thirds of O'ahu's wastewater. Until 1976, the city dumped raw sewage just a half-mile offshore.