City was warned to replace sewer line
By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Robbie Dingeman
The city was warned two years ago that the pressurized sewer line that burst March 24 and sent a record amount of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal was on a list of "very critical" sewer lines that should be considered for replacement, according to a report obtained by The Advertiser.
An October 2004 report by city consultant Fukunaga & Assoc. Inc. described the Beach Walk pressurized line, or force main, as "extremely critical, (with) high flows, susceptible to corrosion, very old, (with) limited contingency provisions."
The Beach Walk force main was among seven deemed in "very critical" condition. The report recommended that a backup line be created for that major sewer line, which handles wastewater from Waikiki, Mo'ili'ili and Manoa.
The report was commissioned by the city in response to a notice of violation six months earlier from the state Health Department, which raised concerns about the city's network of 75 force mains, which link to gravity-fed lines, pumping stations and treatment plants.
Though the city came up with an improvement plan and set aside $30 million for sewer work in Waikiki, repairs were not made before the break on Kai'olu Street put 48 million gallons of untreated waste into the Ala Wai Canal and contaminated water off Waikiki.
It happened with Honolulu already under federal scrutiny for the condition of its sewers and 11 years after the city agreed to make substantial improvements.
Attorney Lea Hong represents the Sierra Club's Hawai'i Chapter, Hawai'i's Thousand Friends and Our Children's Earth, the groups that pushed for federal intervention and the city's agreement to improve the sewer system as part of the 1995 consent decree.
Hong said this huge, latest spill shows that the consent decree and the existing city effort aren't sufficient to handle the problem of an aging sewer system.
"We've ignored the problem for too long and now it's very critical," she said.
"This has been building up for decades in terms of lax maintenance and raiding of sewer funds."
When the 42-inch Beach walk force main broke on Kai'olu Street during heavy rain last month, city officials authorized the release of untreated wastewater.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann said the city was left with no good alternative — it was either dump into the Ala Wai or allow sewage to back up into Waikiki hotels, homes and businesses.
It was nearly two years before, on April 15, 2004, that state Deputy Health Director Laurence Lau signed a notice of violation ordering the city to come up with a plan to correct an ongoing problem with sewage spills from force mains. That order cited a total of nearly 8 million gallons worth of spills from 1996 to April 2004, all from force mains.
'THEY TOOK A RISK'
Following the Waikiki wastewater release, Lau said, the city tried to balance the cost of building backup sewer pipes against the chances and consequences of a spill.
"Obviously, they took a risk," Lau said. "They made their choice and got this result."
Eric Takamura, the city's environmental services director, said Lau raises a crucial issue.
"I think that's what the past administration did by holding off on the improvement. They took that risk," Takamura said.
But Ben Lee, managing director under former Mayor Jeremy Harris, said that under Harris' administration the city spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the sewer system and was trying to balance priorities and long-term solutions.
From 1995 to 2005, the city spent more than $604 million on various wastewater improvements.
Since Hannemann took office in January 2005, he has asked for $585 million for sewer work in his first two budgets and said that the city had to play catch-up after years of putting off hard decisions.
Following the implementation of the federal consent decree in 1995, the city undertook an assessment of its entire sewer system. Among the problem areas identified was the Beach Walk force main.
Takamura said he can't understand why the Harris administration targeted the area for sewer replacement at least eight years ago but never started the work.
"We just cannot fathom why they did not act sooner," Takamura said. "It's in the heart of Waikiki. Something of this magnitude will affect our tourist industry."
"It was stuck in the planning phase from 1998," Takamura said, because Harris didn't want to take the unpopular step of raising sewer fees.
But Lee said it's just not that simple. "It wasn't deferred because we didn't want to raise sewer fees," Lee said.
He said the city analyzed various alternatives to putting another major sewer line in Waikiki that were expensive and unpopular with the community.
A COMPLEX PROJECT
Currently, sewage from Mo'ili'ili and Manoa is pumped under the Ala Wai, through Waikiki and then to the Sand Island treatment plant. Lee said engineers favored not pumping sewage from the mauka communities into the resort neighborhood.
But that would have meant building a new sewage pumping station on the mountain side of the Ala Wai. He said the city proposed building on Date Street and "the community went nuts." Officials also proposed building on the Ala Wai Golf Course but faced the problems of building in a floodplain.
If the city chose to keep all the sewage running through Waikiki, then officials needed to determine the impact of building a large new replacement sewer line along the Ala Wai, or Kuhio or Kalakaua avenues, Lee said. And he said all those options proved expensive and controversial.
Takamura said it's true that the Beach Walk force main is part of a complex construction project. He sees questions of where to locate the new pipe and facilities, the unpopularity of doing sewer construction in a resort area and the soaring expense of construction.
He said $30 million in the current year's budget was targeted for work to replace the line that burst, which runs past the point where the Kai'olu Street break occurred up Ala Wai Boulevard to Atkinson Drive and then over to Ala Moana Boulevard.
Planning and design work has begun, but Takamura said construction was likely a year or so away when the Beach Walk line ruptured on Kai'olu Street.
Former state lawmaker John Carroll said flooding has been a problem in Waikiki since the 1970s when he represented the area and he finds it hard to believe that the city never built a backup system to prevent this kind of major problem.
He said Waikiki is critical to the visitor industry and Hawai'i's resort image.
"There's got to be a better way," Carroll said. "Waikiki is, for a lot of people worldwide, Hawai'i."
The March 24 spill is likely to invite further federal scrutiny.
Dean Higuchi, spokesman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said city officials and state Health Department officials already were meeting with EPA officials in San Francisco on existing compliance issues when news of the magnitude of the spill spread.
Higuchi said he could not discuss ongoing or potential enforcement actions that might arise from the Waikiki spill.
"We're definitely looking at it," Higuchi said. "And we have a long history with the city."
Reach Robbie Dingeman at email@example.com.