City faces questions, sanctions over spill
The federal Environmental Protection Agency took the first step toward enforcement action against the city by asking Honolulu for written reports to determine what caused the largest raw sewage spill in Hawai'i, even as the mayor defended his administration's handling of the crisis.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann, in a news conference yesterday, said that he is aware of EPA concerns and how the agency's "threat of additional fines continue to hover over the city."
Hannemann said upgrading the city's wastewater system has been a top priority since he became mayor and he's optimistic that the EPA will keep an open mind.
"Our job is to get the facts to them, which we are," Hannemann said. "We are determined to continue to make the case that life is different now and there's a different sheriff in town."
The city also can expect pressure from the federal level to more quickly fix its aging sewer system.
"The EPA is very concerned about a spill of that magnitude," Kathi Moore, manager of the EPA's regional Clean Water Act compliance office in San Francisco, said of the March 24 spill.
"It is much larger than many of the spills that we've seen throughout the country. It is a very significant spill.
"We've been concerned about the state of the entire sewage collection system on the island of O'ahu for a number of years now."
The city was aware that the pressurized sewer main in Waikiki known as the Beach Walk force main was a potential problem. A consultant's report in 2004 described the 42-inch pipe as "very critical," with high flows susceptible to corrosion, and recommended creation of a backup line.
The Beach Walk line was just one of eight that had been flagged, even as the city faced federal scrutiny under a 1995 consent decree over the condition of its aging sewer system. Under that court document, the city had agreed to make substantial improvements.
Moore said that, over the years, the EPA and the state Health Department have been pushing to get more sewer repair and maintenance projects done more quickly. "Projects were started but there wasn't a lot of finishing," Moore said. Eight years ago, the city began a process that would have replaced the Beach Walk main but the project remained stuck in the planning phase.
"We'd like to see a comprehensive look at and reprioritization of these projects to prevent any more of these kinds of spills from happening again," Moore said.
48 MILLION GALLONS
When the Beach Walk main broke on Kai'olu Street during heavy rain, it led to the release of an estimated 48 million gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal, creating monumental public health and environmental concerns.
Because there is pending enforcement action against the city, Moore could not directly comment on how the EPA will proceed.
But the latest spill shows the need for systematic reform and that changes need to be made in the city's internal organization, said attorney Christopher Sproul, who represents the Sierra Club's Hawai'i Chapter, Hawai'i's Thousand Friends and Our Children's Earth. Those environmental groups pushed for federal intervention to improve the sewer system as part of the consent decree.
Sproul said that for a project to proceed, "16 people have to sign off on it."
A solution may come with streamlining the city's internal organization, setting clear deadlines with specific milestones, and an objective measurement of whether goals are reached, he said.
The environmental organizations hope to work with the city to improve the system, Sproul said. If significant progress is not made, the federal court could assign someone — usually known as a special master — to take over responsibility for overseeing the city's sewer system, he said.
"We have an existing lawsuit against them," Sproul said. "The ultimate sanction is taking it (the system) away from them and giving it to a master. We're hoping that we can work something out short of that."
Waikiki resident Mike Peters, a five-year member of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, is outraged that the massive spill occurred and thinks the city and the state need to work together to make expensive but much-needed improvements.
Peters, a hotel employee and substitute teacher, said he doesn't think most people were aware that "our sewage system was in such bad shape."
Generally, he doesn't think people make the connection between paying higher sewer fees and having an improved and more reliable sewer system.
He said some of the people who are now complaining about the spill also opposed any large-scale sewer projects in Waikiki.
"People were more concerned about how much traffic would it cause; how much public parking would be available," and how the sidewalks would be affected, he said.
But Peters said a spill this large is going to make a difference.
Hannemann said the catastrophic spill shows that the city should have done much more for years, especially after the 1995 federal consent decree.
"We're in a tough dilemma," Hannemann said.
"We know the EPA's not going to look too kindly on what we did with spilling out into the Ala Wai."
'I COULD SEE IT COMING'
The city should have done more to correct concerns, and "that may have prevented the problems that we're facing today," Hannemann said. "When I campaigned for this job, that was one of the things I said. One of the biggest nightmares was a sewage spill in Waikiki — I could see it coming.
"There's a case to be made that sewer fees should have been raised years ago," Hannemann said.
He said the problems were compounded because $119 million in sewer fees were raided by the previous administration, which meant that the city had to borrow more money to cover the planned amount of projects.
"Whatever funds we collect for the sewer fees will go for our wastewater improvements and it will not be diverted to other uses," he said.
Former city Managing Director Ben Lee, who served under the previous administration, said the construction budget since 1994, when Jeremy Harris assumed duties as mayor, shows that "hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on our wastewater system."
Lee said the city tried to prioritize while it was under pressure to pour millions of dollars into improving the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, which handles most of the sewage from urban Honolulu.
"It's expensive," Lee said. "We need to balance cost with other priorities."
NOT ALL REPLACED
Many parts of the wastewater system are scheduled for upgrade, said City Environmental Services Director Eric Takamura.
The network of 75 force mains in O'ahu's sewer system link to gravity-fed lines, pumping stations and treatment plants. The city has not replaced all of the force mains that were identified as critical in its 2004 consultant's report.
But work has been completed on other critical pipes, Takamura said.
Major work has been done on Ala Moana and Hart Street, "two of our largest force mains," he said.
Many of the city's force mains were replaced in the 1980s or 1990s. Those that have been flagged as very critical and in need of replacement are the Beach Walk line, Lualualei, Waimalu, Kamehameha Highway, Kahala, Kailua Heights and Kane'ohe.
Repairs or replacement for all of those lines "are in some sort of planning phase," Takamura said.
The recent sewage disaster will raise public awareness, Peters said, as other areas of the island look critically at what needs to be done to make their sewer lines safe.
Others might wonder, "If Waikiki's burst, could ours?" Peters said.
"It's time to move forward and make sure nothing like this ever happens again."