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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Beaches await all-clear sign

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

After last week's downpours, some people apparently couldn't resist getting into the ocean at Kailua Beach yesterday and ignored signs warning of contaminated water. A state Department of Health official says the water may clear up in "a day or so."

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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KANE'OHE Bacteria levels from sewage spills in O'ahu's streams and oceans are dropping dramatically, but the state Department of Health says it will be several days before people can safely get into the water.

After the sewage spill, enterococci bacteria levels for some areas were 20,000 times higher than the state's acceptable rate, said Watson Okubo, chief of the monitoring and analysis section of the Department of Health.

Today, the bacteria counts around O'ahu are only a few hundred times greater, but still too high to go into the water.

"It will take maybe a day more or so," Okubo said. "The numbers are dropping significantly, but we have to have a better show of numbers."

The acceptable state level for beach monitoring is five times less than the U.S. EPA standard of 35 colonies per 100 milliliters, he said. The state also uses a second indicator bacteria, Clostridium perfringens, to be sure the numbers aren't skewed by natural occurrences of enterococci in the environment.

In the initial flush of a sewage spill or storm, both numbers will be high, Okubo said. "But subsequent counts should be low, and if we don't see a drop in the perfringens, that tells us the human sewage is in the area, so we have to keep the area posted."

The city reported eight sewage spills on Friday, with the biggest one from the Kane'ohe Pre-Treatment Facility on Kualauli Street, where 102,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled. The other sites are in Kailua at the Kailua Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant and at the intersection of Keolu Drive and Hele Street; at Waimanalo Wastewater Treatment Plant; and in Kane'ohe at Nahiku Street, Punawai Sewage Pumping Station on Halaulani Street, Waikalua Road near the police station and Lilipuna Road.

A spill of 7,500 gallons was reported yesterday at Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden in Kane'ohe. The city said it was caused by rain runoff overflowing from a sewer line clogged by tree roots. The blockage was cleared by 9:35 a.m.

Warning signs remain where the counts are high, telling people to stay out of the water.

Bryan Amona, a Kailua resident, said he's planning to swim at the Kailua pool rather than take a chance in local waters, where the DOH also warns against leptospirosis contamination.

The infectious disease is present in all Hawaiian fresh water and causes flu-like symptoms that can lead to serious complications and in some instances death. People who have the symptoms and suspect they have been exposed should alert their doctors.

"It's not worth getting sick," Amona said. "I haven't been (to the beach) for almost two weeks."

Members of the Waimanalo Canoe Club have to get in the water, said Nazarene Anderson, club president. They have a race this weekend, but they are limiting their time in the water, Anderson said.

Monday, paddlers launched from Kaiona Beach Park and headed toward Bellows, but the water was too dirty, she said. Fortunately, the season isn't in full swing, and mostly adults are practicing, she said.

"We're just really cautious," she said. "So you wash off really good and keep your mouth closed. We don't allow the kids at all in and around those areas."

In other parts of the Windward coast, state officials continued to assess flood damage to households from Kahalu'u to Kahuku, said Dave Curtis, spokesman for state Civil Defense.

Of the 111 homes affected by the storm, five sustained major damages and 20 had minor problems, Curtis said. No dollar figure has been assigned to the damage because assessment are still being done, he said.

The state will set up a disaster assistance recovery center, but Curtis said he couldn't say when because more rain is predicted this week and the state doesn't want to open the center when it's raining. The center will provide a one-stop shop to obtain information and help for damage caused by the storm.

The American Red Cross will participate in the center and has already decided it will spend $45,000 on this relief effort, said Maria Lutz, director of disaster service for the organization. The money will be for household goods, food and clothing for the 111 homes, Lutz said.

"That's our first estimate, based on the damage we've seen," she said. "That budget may change."

BACTERIA LEVELS AT BEACHES

Levels of enterococci bacteria, a key pollution indicator, at Windward beaches Monday. The U.S. EPA acceptable level is 35 bacteria colonies per 100 milliliters or 3 fluid ounces. The state standard is 7 colonies.

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com.