New cesspool construction banned

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HILO — The state has taken an important step toward addressing water pollution, according to some isle scientists.


HILO — The state has taken an important step toward addressing water pollution, according to some isle scientists.

A statewide ban on new cesspool construction approved Friday by Gov. David Ige came despite protests from seven Hawaii Island legislators, who claimed the ban would place undue financial burdens on local homeowners who might not be able to afford more expensive sewage systems.

The new rules also implement a 2015 law providing a tax credit of up to $10,000 for cesspools upgraded to sewer or septic systems during the next five years, limited to $5 million or about 500 cesspool upgrades a year. Under the law, owners of cesspools located within 200 feet of the ocean, streams or marsh areas, or near drinking water sources, can qualify for the credit.

In announcing the ban, Ige said Hawaii had been the only state in the union that allowed the construction of cesspools.

“Today’s action banning new cesspools statewide would stop the addition of pollution from approximately 800 new cesspools per year,” he said.

Cesspools, which are effectively “just holes in the ground,” according to University of Hawaii at Hilo marine scientist Tracy Wiegner, inject about 55 million gallons of raw, untreated sewage into Hawaii’s groundwater every day, potentially spreading diseases and harming the quality of drinking water supplies and recreational waters.

Wiegner applauded the ban on Monday, calling it “a good first step towards reducing sewage pollution in our nearshore waters.”

However, a large contingent of Big Island delegates to the state Legislature had opposed the rule changes. In a Feb. 1 letter, state Reps. Mark Nakashima, Richard Creagan, Richard Onishi, Clift Tsuji and Cindy Evans, as well as state Sens. Russell Ruderman and Lorraine Inouye, asked Ige to refrain from signing the new rules, citing the high costs associated with installing alternative septic systems. Their letter claimed that arguments for not allowing cesspools anywhere in the state were “weak and unsubstantiated,” while discriminating against Hawaii’s poorest residents.

“The cost of a septic system in Hawaii is in the range of $20,000 to $30,000,” the letter reads. “The cost of a cesspool is in the range of $2,000-$3,000. There should thus be a substantial benefit to justify this great difference in cost.”

According to the letter, there are more than 50,000 cesspools on Hawaii Island, and the total cost to homeowners could eventually be as high as $1.5 billion to replace them all with septic systems. Meanwhile, the legislators say, the cesspools work well, and it would be a hardship to ask people in areas not near the coastline to install more expensive options.

“In many areas of our Hawaii and Maui counties there is no county water system. Water catchment provides water to over 17,000 homes in Hawaii County alone,” the letter reads. “The use of water in the home and the eventual flows into the cesspools are therefore minimal. These areas should be absolutely excluded from any such ban.”

Wiegner and her colleagues, however, said last week that they thought they had substantial data documenting sewage pollution on Hawaii Island, which they hoped Ige would consider as he weighed the proposed rule changes.

UH marine scientists Wiegner, Steven Colbert and Jim Beets wrote in a March 4 letter to the governor that their research showed more than half of the island’s cesspools are located within two years of travel to a river or the shoreline for sewage that has seeped out of cesspools.

“Dye tracer study tests have been conducted both at Waiopae and Puako, and time of travel from homes to shoreline ranged from 20 minutes to three days,” the scientists wrote.

“Additionally, wastewater has been shown to be polluting drinking water wells. In Hawaiian Paradise Park … 50 percent of drinking water wells sampled tested positive for fecal indicator bacteria. Pathogens associated with this indicator bacteria can live for months in groundwater. These results indicate that cesspools can be immediate human health hazards.”

The presence of Enterococcus bacteria in areas such as Hilo Bay suggest that disease-causing bacteria might also be present, especially if they are from human waste, the scientists said.

“In Hilo Bay, it has been confirmed that some of these bacteria are from human waste using microbial source tracking techniques,” the letter reads. “Comparable measurements have not yet been made in Waiopae and Puako.”


The new administrative rules for the Wastewater Division of the Department of Health will go into effect 10 days after filing with the lieutenant governor’s office.

Email Colin M. Stewart at

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