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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, February 28, 2005

Many cesspool users likely to miss deadline

 •  Chart: Cesspools in Hawai'i

By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer

HALE'IWA — Hundreds of Hawai'i cesspool users, including the state, likely will miss an April 5 deadline to upgrade their systems and will face up to $32,500 in fines per day.


For information on EPA cesspool regulations and wastewater disposal alternatives, call the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency toll free at (866) 372-9378 or visit epa.gov/region09/water/

The Environmental Protection Agency said it is focusing on Hawai'i to protect the state's drinking water, streams and beaches from cesspool contamination.

Hawai'i has "at least 1,500 large-capacity cesspools that are noncompliant," said Laura Bose, EPA senior policy adviser in San Francisco.

On Wednesday, the federal government launched a state-wide ad campaign aimed at stripping Hawai'i of one of its least appealing claims to fame: cesspool capital of the nation.

No state in America uses cesspools as widely as Hawai'i, the EPA said. In fact, no place else comes close, the agency said.

And in no location in Hawai'i does the issue affect more folks than it does on O'ahu's North Shore — a place that hosts more than 2 million visitors a year, is not connected to a public sewage system and for decades has relied extensively on old-fashioned cesspools.

"Got a cesspool," the first EPA ad began. "Does it serve more than one dwelling? If non-residential, does it serve more than 20 persons on any day? If you answered yes to either question, you have a large capacity cesspool and must close it by April 5, 2005 to comply with federal regulations."

Of the 1,500 cesspools that are noncompliant, Bose said some six dozen are on the North Shore.

The EPA is quick to point out that the April 5 deadline applies to large-capacity cesspools only, and has nothing to do with single dwelling cesspool systems.

But the large-capacity cesspool ban affects "all the churches, all the camps, all the parks, and a lot of vacation rentals and schools here," said Antya Miller, executive director of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce.

Among the affected institutions are such Hale'iwa icons as the Waialua Community Association, established in 1934, and Lili'uokalani Protestant Church, founded in the 1830s.

"We didn't even know where the cesspool was," said WCA office manager, Xavier "Marty" Martin. "I have no idea when it was built."

Martin said he didn't know how much improving the building's cesspool would cost or if the work would be completed by the deadline. But he said the association is working with the state Health Department to improve the system as soon as possible.

"Right now, the problem is how to fund it," said Martin.

Likewise, Lili'uokalani caretaker Isaiah Edayan had no idea of the location of the church cesspool. Interim kahu, the Rev. David Kaupu, and congregation members, said someone from the government visited recently to explain the situation. The church expects to comply, they said. But when the work would be done and how much it would cost remain unknown.

Miller said last week's EPA advisory caught some residents off guard.

"A lot of people here are a little upset about the fact that they weren't notified sooner," she said. "I mean, here it is February and they're just now putting notices in the paper."

However, the cesspool ban dates to December 1999, when the EPA announced all large-capacity cesspools must be closed or upgraded by April 5 of this year. And Bose said the EPA has tried diligently to get the word out over the past two years, even though the agency is not required to do so.

Twice in the past year Bose said she has traveled to the North Shore to personally hand out fliers.

Upsetting to some is the fact that it could cost property owners and managers $10,000 to $25,000, or even more, to upgrade noncompliant cesspools to legal septic tank systems or other alternatives. But most disturbing is the EPA warning that it can impose fines of up to $32,500 per day per violation.

The EPA is adamant that there will be no exemptions or deferments for noncompliant property owners — be they federal, state, county or private. Those who can't make the deadline are required to notify the EPA and to submit a plan approved by the state Health Department.

Those who fail to do so face enormous fines. But the EPA says it's eager to work with those who can't make the deadline but who want to correct the situation.

For example, John Kemmerer, associate director of the Region 9 Water Division in San Francisco, said the agency is now negotiating with the state regarding 55 noncompliant park restroom facilities. The state has earmarked $10 million of a $15 million park improvement project to upgrade the cesspools, but can't get the work completed by the deadline.

"We're expecting them to be as pro-active as possible in replacing these systems," said Kemmerer, who said it's premature to say if or how much the state might be fined while the negotiations are ongoing.

But the EPA notes it "has discretion on its enforcement actions," and can take into consideration the efforts those who it believes are acting sincerely to comply as fast as possible.

That's a good thing, said Ed Gonzales, a North Shore licensed septic contractor, because there aren't enough certified septic tank installers in the entire state to cap or upgrade all the non-compliant cesspools by the deadline.

"I'd say there are less than a dozen of us," said Gonzales. "People will call and say, 'Ed, come over and put in a septic tank.' Uh-uh, doesn't work that way. Each system has to be designed and approved by the state before a licensed septic contractor can install an individual wastewater system.

"You treat each one differently."

No matter what the outcome of the EPA effort is, Gonzales says Hawai'i isn't really in danger of losing its cesspool-capital status.

"Single-dwelling cesspools are all over the place in Hawai'i," said Gonzales, who added that the EPA doesn't regulate such cesspools, and so far the state has no plans to ban them.

"And you know how many of those there are in the state? — 170,000."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.

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