Cesspool alternatives expensive

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HILO — Communities in Kailua-Kona and Puako are battling contamination from cesspools leaking into the nearby sea. But the solution won’t be easy — nor will it be cheap.

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HILO — Communities in Kailua-Kona and Puako are battling contamination from cesspools leaking into the nearby sea. But the solution won’t be easy — nor will it be cheap.

The county Environmental Management Commission is pressing Mayor Harry Kim’s administration to get something done. The administration is in agreement, but isn’t sure how to proceed, said Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski.

“I can identify the problem. I can identify the solution,” Kucharski told the commission last month. “But I can’t find a painless solution.”

Sewer improvement districts are often used as a solution. That’s what’s happening elsewhere on the island, such as the Lono Kona community.

The $6.5 million sewer project will be built mauka of Kuakini Highway in an area residents have dubbed “Hamburger Hill.” The Lono Kona sewer system improvement district includes 145 assessment units on 110 lots.

Lot owners are assessed an estimated $9,090 per single-family equivalent unit. The county then uses bonds to finance the project and allows property owners to make annual payments of about $498 per single-family equivalent.

The problem with Puako is it will cost much more, Kucharski said.

He estimates constructing a sewer system for 643 households will come in between $14 million and $15 million.

That works out to $600-$800 monthly per house, Kucharski said.

The problem with Alii Drive, south of Queen Kalama, is twofold: Erosion is eating away the makai land and leaving no room for septic systems. If the area were to connect to a sewer system, a sewer treatment plant would also have to be built. That will be a big project.

“This has been going on the 40 odd years I’ve been on this island; this has been a topic of discussion even before the commission existed,” said Commission Chairman James Fritz. “Yesterday would have been better. … This is still realistically years away.”

Commissioner Jon Olson thinks the county should forge ahead and address it.

“Eventually, water quality will sink to a point where we will incur federal sanctions … We will do it anyway, under the gun,” Olson said. “It isn’t going to get any less painful than it is now.”

Cesspools are now prohibited for new construction. Individual homeowners wanting to upgrade a cesspool to a septic tank can get a little relief.

In 2015 Gov. David Ige signed Act 120, which gives $10,000 income tax credits for homeowners in areas near water sources to upgrade their cesspools to more effective wastewater treatment systems. The credit program runs though Dec. 31, 2020.

According to the South Kohala Community Development Plan, the groundwater table in Puako is near the surface and wastewater seeps into the ocean from the cesspools. This environmental degradation will continue unless a permanent solution to treat and dispose of wastewater is found.

“The amount of untreated wastewater entering the ocean needs to be reduced. The county general plan specifically calls for the construction of a sewerage system for the Puako Beach Lots and that the sewerage system should utilize the existing resort wastewater treatment plant,” the plan stated. “Action to protect the marine resources off Puako’s coast needs to occur sooner rather than later. Delaying action may result in severe damage to the marine environment that may not be able to be undone.”

Federal regulations ban gang cesspools, which are cesspools shared by a group of dwellings or buildings containing multiple residents or serving multiple people.

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“Cesspools are substandard systems. They don’t treat wastewater, they merely dispose of it,”a “State of the Beach” Beachapedia report says. “Cesspools concentrate the wastewater in one location, often deep within the ground and in direct contact with groundwater, causing groundwater contamination. This groundwater flows into drinking water wells, streams and the ocean, harming public health and the environment, including beaches and coral reefs.”

More than half of the state’s approximately 90,000 cesspools are on the Big Island.

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