EPA deal aims to stop sewage spills on Waikiki beaches
The upgrades were part of a settlement with the EPA that ended years of lawsuits and sanitation warnings.
Mon, Jun 28, 2010 at 07:33 PM
POLLUTED: In 2006, 48 million gallons of sewage were flushed into a Waikiki canal and reached the pristine beaches after weeks of heavy rain. (Photo: William Cheung/iStockphoto)
Honolulu officials said Monday that the city will upgrade its aging sewer system to prevent another spill from contaminating Waikiki's famous beaches.
The upgrades were part of a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that ended years of lawsuits and sanitation warnings.
The threat spilled over in 2006, when 48 million gallons of sewage were flushed into a Waikiki canal and reached beaches after weeks of heavy rain. If the wastewater hadn't been released into the ocean, sewage could have backed up into hotels, homes and businesses.
"My biggest nightmare was to have a sewage spill in Waikiki ... and that's what happened," said Mayor Mufi Hannemann. "This is a clear case of pay now or pay later."
The proposed settlement resolves four lawsuits, filed between 1994 and 2010 by environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Our Children's Earth Foundation and Hawaii's Thousand Friends. It still needs to be approved by the city council and the federal court.
Details of the settlement weren't disclosed, but they require the city to improve wastewater collection and sewage treatment. It will likely mean more increases to sewer charges paid by island residents and businesses, which will pass on the costs to tourists.
"Everyone from residents to tourists care about clean water, especially when they come to a pristine place like Hawaii," said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the EPA. "This is the right decision, the right time, and we're very proud to be part of this settlement."
Honolulu is the largest city in the country that hasn't required its wastewater treatment plants to handle secondary treatment, said Hannemann, who maintains that the city's water is safe even without it.
The agreement calls for improved wastewater collection pipes called force mains, as well as upgrades to pump stations. It also sets an extended timeline for the city's two largest wastewater treatment plants, at Sand Island and Honouliuli, to begin handling secondary treatment of sewage that contains pesticides, toxins and pathogens found in water tests, Blumenfeld said.
"I'm confident that once we upgrade the system and we take care of our structural deficits that we're no longer going to be seeing these type of problems," said city Environmental Services Director Timothy Steinberger, referring to spills like those in Waikiki.
Robert Harris, director for the Sierra Club's Hawaii chapter, called the settlement "a significant long sought-after win for the environment."
"Under the settlement, the city will improve our wastewater system in a systematic long-term fashion to protect the health of citizens and our coastal environment," he said.
"No one in Hawaii should be at risk of swimming in raw sewage," said Donna Wong, executive director for Hawaii's Thousand Friends.
Although the cost of the sewage system upgrades wasn't revealed, Hannemann said last year it would cost the city about $1.2 billion to add secondary treatment capabilities to its two major wastewater plants, forcing the city to raise sewer fees.
Average monthly sewer service charges have already gone up from $33 in 2005 to nearly $79 this year. Those increases have helped pay for increased sewer line inspections, more sewer repairs and a drop in gravity main spills.
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