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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hawai'i faces mounting EPA cesspool violations

By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer

Josh Heimowitz, executive director of YMCA Camp Erdman, examines a pipe connected to an underground septic tank that was installed last summer to satisfy EPA regulations. The Mokule'ia camp spent $350,000 to replace its 70-year-old cesspool system.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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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 http://epa.gov/region 09/water/groundwater/uic-hi cesspools.html.

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Liliçuokalani Protestant Church in Haleçiwa is trying to raise $25,000 to replace its cesspool and in the meantime is using portable toilets.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The Environmental Protection Agency says the statewide tally of outdated and now illegal sewage disposal systems is more than twice as high as a year ago, when Hawai'i was dubbed the cesspool capital of the nation.

At least 4,000 large-capacity cesspools — nonresidential systems that serve more than 20 people a day or more than one dwelling — dot the Islands in various public locations, such as camps, parks, schools, vacation rentals and churches, according to the EPA.

No location has been more affected by the EPA's call to replace cesspools with more environmentally friendly septic systems than O'ahu's North Shore, which is not connected to a public sewage system although it sees 2 million visitors a year.

After five years of advance notice, the EPA outlawed cesspools in April. Violators face daily fines of up to $32,500. The law does not apply to single-dwelling cesspools, which remain legal and are regulated by the state.

Last year, the agency estimated that there were 1,500 large-capacity cesspools statewide. Today most of the state's cesspool owners have yet to make the switch to a septic system, although EPA officials report receiving a "significant number of compliance plans and schedules."

That commitment has so far helped to spare North Shore cesspool owners from EPA fines.

"The key message is that we want to urge compliance, not issue fines," said Dean Higuchi, EPA spokesman in Hawai'i. "But, for those who don't want to work with us, there's always the possibility of fines."

Laura Bose, EPA senior policy adviser in San Francisco, said, "We want people to submit those compliance plans so that we know that they want to work on improving water quality."

While the EPA is working with large-capacity cesspool owners who have contacted the agency, Bose said, it has established a referral system by which it is able to track users who may try to avoid compliance.

For decades, the North Shore community has relied on overtaxed cesspool systems that pose an environmental threat because they discharge raw sewage directly into the ground. But paying for the upgrade to septic system is a struggle for some cesspool owners.

Kuulei Kaio, of Hale'iwa's landmark Lili'uokalani Protestant Church, said her small congregation is resorting to portable toilets while the church tries to scrape together the $25,000 needed to install a septic system.

"We're doing a lot of praying," said Kaio, who is in charge of the church office. "We have a plan, and we hope this year to have the septic tank put in. But we have run into other problems — I now have a roof leak — so we're at a standstill."

At YMCA Camp Erdman in Mokule'ia, officials last summer wrapped up replacement of eight 70-year-old, dilapidated cesspools with seven modern 5,000-gallon septic tanks. The bill came to about $350,000, which ate up virtually the entire annual YMCA of Honolulu Development Fund budget for 2005, said Josh Heimowitz, executive director of the camp.

"We're now at the very bottom of the fund list," Heimowitz said. "It's difficult because it inconvenienced our guests for almost an entire year. Our once lush, green fields were all dug up and brown. Plus, it's expensive, and it's not something our clients will ever see.

"But, we knew we would have to do it, so we undertook it last spring."

Waialua Community Association is among many largecapacity cesspool owners still sorting through plans for the switch to a septic system.

"I think we're looking at $25,000 to $30,000 for the WCA septic system project," said Heimowitz, who also is a member of the WCA board of directors. "We know we'll have to do it, and we have the compliance plan. We just don't have the money to pay for it."

If the board hasn't found the money within a year or two, Heimowitz said the community association could be in trouble with the EPA.

Still, even if funding turns up today, the WCA could still be in for a long wait, said Ed Gonzales, a licensed North Shore septic contractor — one of a handful of experienced specialists scrambling to upgrade area cesspool systems.

"Business is good," said Gonzales, who is installing septic systems as fast as he can.

"I'm doing one right now," said Gonzales, who has installed fewer than a dozen systems in the past year. "It takes so long to put one in. And you have to make a different plan for each one."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.