Health Department hears cesspool concerns

Most people testifying Thursday evening about proposed rules aimed at reducing cesspools in the state agreed that protecting water quality is important. But many objected to what they considered draconian measures to accomplish it.

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Most people testifying Thursday evening about proposed rules aimed at reducing cesspools in the state agreed that protecting water quality is important. But many objected to what they considered draconian measures to accomplish it.

About 40 people attended a hearing in Hilo held by the state Department of Health as it considers rules that would prohibit construction of any new cesspools. It was the last of a series of hearings before the department decides whether to forward the rules to the governor’s office.

Rules would also require property owners to convert cesspools to septic systems within 180 days after sale of the property and reduce from 50 to 15 the number of dwellings in a subdivision before a centralized septic system is required.

Barbara Bell, in testimony, said she supported several parts of the rules, while she had concerns about the implementation of other parts.

“We’ve been waiting a very long time for this,” said Bell, a former director of the Hawaii County Department of Environmental Management.

Bell called the prohibition against new cesspools a “no-brainer,” but said there should be “some kind of carrot, not just a stick,” such as tax breaks for homeowners converting existing cesspools to septic systems.

But several Keaukaha residents said the county’s current centralized sewer system isn’t so clean either. The county was recently cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a failing outfall system that is leaking sewage into the nearshore waters east of Hilo Bay.

John McBride, who lives in Keaukaha, said the individual cesspools in the neighborhood haven’t caused problems. The problems came about when the county started consolidating the sewage and sending it to his neighborhood, he said.

“I get to smell it, I get to taste it in the water,” McBride said.

State Rep. Richard Onishi, D-Hilo, Keaau, Kurtistown, Volcano, questioned the process of developing the rules, saying the Health Department should have involved stakeholders early in the formulation of the rules, rather than presenting them as a fait accompli.

The department had originally planned just a Honolulu public hearing with videoconference to the neighbor islands, but added face-to-face hearings on Maui and the Big Island after the videoconference feed went down.

Some 60 people attended a similar hearing in Kailua-Kona last week.

The state Legislature last year killed a bill that would have established an unspecified “reasonable” fee on owners of individual wastewater systems that would go into a new water pollution control account to pay for Department of Health staff to monitor discharges and enforce permits and management plans. Individual wastewater systems are defined as cesspools, septic tanks, aerobic treatment units and any collection systems not connected to a sewer.

The estimated $10,000 to $15,000 cost of converting to septic tanks is a much harder hit on the Big Island, where the average home costs $265,000 to $300,000, and especially in East Hawaii, where average homes are valued from $180,000 to $190,000, said Kealii Beck, with KnR Consultants, a building contractor.

On Oahu, in sharp contrast, average homes are valued from $265,000 to $300,000, said Beck.

“Unfortunately, at every turn, we get hit harder and harder,” said Beck.

Hawaii is the only state in the nation that still allows construction of new cesspools. There are currently 90,000 cesspools in the state. The majority, some 50,000, are located on the Big Island. In addition, almost 14,000 are on Kauai, more than 12,000 are on Maui, more than 11,000 are on Oahu and more than 1,400 are on Molokai. Each year an additional 800 new cesspools are approved for construction, according to the Health Department.

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The Health Department has extended the written comment period through today. Comments can be sent to Wastewater Branch, Environmental Management Division, Hawaii Department of Health, 919 Ala Moana Blvd., Room 309, Honolulu, HI 96814-4920.

Details on the proposal are available online at health.hawaii.gov/wastewater.

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