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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 9, 2006

Sewer crisis spotlights a lapse in public duty

It comes down to this: How much do we care truly about Hawai'i?

Do we really intend to leave our children the Islands with their beauty and natural treasures intact, or will only remnants of that legacy remain for the future?

As Hawai'i residents, we say we place a high value on environmental protection, but we haven't delivered the firm directive to see it gets done.

If we let the record speak for itself, the report would be far from complimentary. The most recent crisis with the sewage breaks and contamination of our streams and ocean provides a sad illustration of the failure, by the voters as well as those we elect.

Years of postponed maintenance siphoning away money meant for repairs to be spent on other things, many of them far less essential has amounted to a roll of the dice. Our elected leaders and public employees gambled that a major sewer line that served Waikiki would hold up a little longer.

SLURRY OF BACTERIA

It didn't. When the pipe burst, officials made the unavoidable decision to dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai, which transformed the water into a slurry of bacteria.

Even more horrifying than the sight of beach closures, and the specter of potential visitors canceling their tours, was the death of Oliver Johnson, the Waikiki man who died of a fatal infection after exposure to the sewage-tainted water in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor.

This painful case exemplifies the real danger to public health that results when humans become careless in their stewardship of our natural environment. As individuals, we must also bear our share of environmental responsibility. Trash and debris dumped into storm drains made matters worse; clearly we need to do our part, too.

And there are more resource management challenges before us. Public-works crews are busily playing catch-up on a mile-long backlog of sewer repairs and upgrades, but other looming crises have the potential to do similar damage.

Consider the landfill situation. Honolulu politicians have sidestepped the reality that the population has outpaced our ability to cope with the garbage we all produce. The city already has waited years too long to find a site to replace Waimanalo Gulch in Leeward O'ahu; there must be no further delay.

It's a tough and unpopular decision. Nobody embraces the idea of a garbage dump near their neighborhood, but with O'ahu's urban sprawl, the next landfill won't be far from some residential area. Officials can't postpone dealing with the issue. The Waimanalo Gulch dump has already outlived its welcome: Federal environmental regulators cited that landfill and one on the Big Island for clean-air violations last week.

LACK OF URGENCY

That's what makes it so frustrating to see the lack of urgency attached to curbside recycling, one of the many things we should be doing to help lighten the load of rubbish we send to the landfills. Unless we capitalize on every strategy available for refuse reduction, the need for landfills will accelerate beyond our ability to accommodate them.

The avoidance of difficult decisions stems from the politics of deferral, a game played here at every level of government. Whether it's maintenance of state or city roadways, water conservation or the upkeep of parks or other public facilities, caretaking has been lax, and it's usually the environment that ultimately bears the brunt of the damage.

BUCK STOPS WITH YOU

There's plenty of blame to spread around. So if the buck is to stop anywhere, it must be with the voters. Public duty No. 1 must be choosing leaders with the political courage to do the work of government, even when it's unpopular, and to hold their feet to the fire when they refuse.

Much of it is thankless both the gritty, unglamorous work of "housekeeping" for Hawai'i, and making sure our elected officials know that we expect to see that the work gets done.

The thanks will be deferred, too, but it will come from our children and grandchildren.