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Hawaii County Water Board looks to public to help fill ad hoc committee

Updated: 
September 14, 2017 - 12:05am

KAILUA-KONA — The Hawaii County Water Board announced Wednesday the first six members of its Permitted Action Group, an ad hoc committee the board is spearheading to investigate the widespread failure of deep well equipment across North Kona.

Board Chair Craig Takamine will be joined on the task force by fellow members Eric Scicchitano, Bill Boswell Jr. and Russell Arikawa. Department of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Keith Okamoto will also be a member, along with DWS Deputy Kawika Uyehara.

But these six men will not make up the entire action group.

Takamine said at an emergency Water Board meeting Wednesday in Kona that more DWS members may be added to the fold. Outside consultants from the private sector, and possibly from the American Water Works Association, will eventually round out the action group, which Takamine hopes to have in place by the end of the month.

The team will be tasked with fact finding and potentially making policy recommendations for future management. Thus, Takamine and company will seek additional members who have a proven level of expertise in various fields applicable to the problems at hand, for instance engineers.

“We’re definitely looking for people with good knowledge of the technical aspects of pumps and wells,” Takamine said. “Honestly, we’re not experts. So we need to work with experts.”

How the board will precisely identify and secure technical experts is a question that remains unanswered. Takamine said any additions to the group will come as a result of team decisions, adding he had some “names in mind” but couldn’t “elaborate at this time.”

He noted there may be legal issues and potential conflicts of interest with some of those he’s considering.

“I would say a mix of not only engineers but people actually on the ground doing the work,” Takamine said of the types of candidates he’s already considering. “That’s the tough part, because there will be conflicts of interest if we have a contractor sitting in this group.”

Only a few contractors on the island do deep well work, and if they can’t be utilized, the pool of applicants drains significantly. The board is also hoping to conduct its fact-finding mission through volunteer efforts, which could also potentially shrink the number of available options as the position will come absent pay.

Takamine said while he was willing to pay for a mainland consultant, he doesn’t think it’s going to be necessary, as he believes there will be enough volunteers who fit the criteria for group membership coming from Hawaii Island and/or other parts of the state.

“Among the four board members, I think we can come up with some really good names,” Takamine said.

As to what the vetting process will be exactly, Takamine also remained mum. He said the process may be similar to applying for a job, although he also wanted to confer with his fellow group members before committing to a vetting strategy.

Whatever manner the action group chooses to legitimize candidates will be important, considering the potential sources of candidate nomination — namely the public at large.

The board asked a group of a few dozen attendees at Wednesday’s meeting for their input, as well as suggestions of anyone they feel might be qualified. In essence, the board began recruiting candidates, at least in part, through a crowd sourcing effort.

Bo Kahui, of Laiopua 2020, stressed technical expertise as a vital characteristic of whoever is chosen, but also said he believes a native Hawaiian representative member of the group is necessary to represent the interests of the Hawaiian community.

John Moore, an engineer and former employee of DWS who began there in the mid-1970s, said technical expertise is really the only attribute that matters in this situation, regardless of cultural concerns.

“If you’re trying to figure out how to fix the pumps, I don’t think you need a bunch of people who are concerned about the Hawaiian issues and some of the other things,” he said. “We’re just trying to get our pumps fixed right now and our wells back in operation.”

The timeline Takamine set dictates names be vetted quickly and effectively. He wants the action group assembled by the end of September and hopes to report findings back to the Water Board within a span of two months. Even if the action group recommends policy changes, those aren’t likely to be implemented until late 2017 or early 2018.

“If we’re going to adopt any rules, that’ll probably happen at the meeting following (the one in which findings are reported),” Takamine said. “So it’s going to take some time. We’re looking at how we can expand on policies and procedures to make sure the department operates in a more efficient manner and is more reliable in the long-term.”

Well repair update

The emergency Water Board meeting grew heated at times Wednesday, as board members struggled to keep public comments and discussion confined to the issue of compiling an ad hoc action group meant to address widespread mechanical failures at several North Kona deep wells.

Takamine ultimately amended the day’s agenda to include an update from Okamoto, who sat next to each public commenter throughout the proceedings, which lasted more than two hours.

DWS is prioritizing the repairs at Hualalai and Palani deep well sites as it scrambles to bring more water back to the strained system. Okamoto said the target date for Hualalai’s return to service is sometime next week, while DWS is shooting to render Palani operational the week after.

“That’s our target,” he said. “As we all know, things change. And we haven’t had the best of luck on these repairs.”

Okamoto added if the targeted timelines can be achieved, North Kona residents need not fret the swell of visitors that accompanies the Ironman World Championship every October.

Hualalai was originally scheduled to return to service Nov. 26 of this year, while Palani was supposed to be fixed by Oct. 30.

DWS is currently examining the motor at Hualalai, which Okamoto said appears to have an oil leak. The plan is to bring in another motor from the base yard, originally set to service a different well, and replace it.

If that doesn’t work, DWS focus will remain on Palani while also shifting to Honokohau, the most recent well to fail of the five currently downed wells in North Kona.

Okamoto said instead of ordering new parts, DWS is working to rebuild the defective motor it had planned to install at Honokohau.

“That would be the most timely remedy for that one,” he said.

The current target date to return Honokohau to service is late October.

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