KAILUA-KONA — Last year, legislators passed a law requiring Hawaii homeowners do away with the state’s estimated 88,000 cesspools by 2050.
This year, lawmakers are trying to figure out how to make that feasible, as affected residents stare down the barrel of a cost that could eclipse $1 billion on Hawaii Island alone.
The Legislature is examining the creation of a working group within the Department of Health comprised of legislators, state and county officials, scientists and financial experts to determine how to absorb the cost and meet timelines that could be accelerated for priority areas.
Establishing such a group is at the center of two measures currently in conference committee, House Bill 2626 and Senate Bill 2567, which through the amendment process would now each achieve essentially the same outcome. The group would offer up a report to the Legislature no later than the final day of 2019.
One of several stated purposes of the proposed group is to offer recommendations on how DOH can convert cesspools or connect them to sewers within 15 years.
Bill Kucharski, director of the Hawaii County Department of Environmental Management, said talk of potentially accelerated timelines for five areas across Hawaii Island create significant cost and structural burdens for the county, which has yet to identify a viable option to help citizens pay roughly $20,000 per household for cesspool conversion or connection.
“The clock is going to shorten, it’s not going to lengthen,” Kucharski said at a community development meeting Wednesday in Kailua-Kona. “This keeps me awake at night.”
Hawaii Island is home to the majority of cesspools in the state, roughly 50,000. County wastewater facilities treat and discharge roughly 4 million gallons daily, while its cesspools discharge about 29 million gallons of wastewater every day.
DOH classifies certain geographical regions in which cesspools are prevalent on a priority scale, from priority 1 to priority 4. Five regions on Hawaii Island — encompassing a collective area of more than 203 square miles in which roughly half of the county’s cesspools exist — have been designated on the priority list.
Kailua-Kona, Hilo Bay, Puako and Kapoho are all priority 3, meaning cesspools there have the potential to adversely impact “sensitive waters,” which might be home to coral reefs or endangered species, for instance.
Keaau is a priority 2 region, meaning cesspools there have the potential to adversely impact the supply of drinking water.
Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona), who introduced HB 2626, said she doesn’t believe the 15-year accelerated timeline stipulation is likely to make its way out of conference this session.
She added a decision to accelerate should originate from a source like the proposed working group her bill would create, not solely from lawmakers.
Show me the money
Kucharski said a switch to septic tanks would not be “particularly better” than the cesspool systems currently in place.
He added sewering all the relevant areas would cost the county around $800-$900 million, which still wouldn’t significantly mitigate the projected $1 billion conversion price tag for residents of Hawaii Island, home to the highest poverty rate in the state. Homeowners still have to pay to connect to the sewers.
The county could borrow from the state’s clean water revolving fund at 1.5 percent interest to build sewer systems.
“But I don’t know how much we can borrow and how much we can afford to owe,” Kucharski said.
As to resident cost, a revolving fund with a couple hundred million dollars that allowed for long-term, low-interest loans could solve the problem, Kucharski explained, but neither the county or the state has yet found a reasonable source for that money.
“Right now, there is no viable fund available,” Kucharski said. “We have one fund that’s in the code, but essentially you need to humiliate yourself, be turned down by two or three banks and then maybe they’ll lend you the money. That’s not what we ought to be doing.”
Lowen said the primary function of the working group would actually be cost mitigation.
“I think the state would be, at some point, willing to look at … an income-based grant program or low-interest loan program” Lowen said, but added counties would be required to chip in.
“We need to get a group of people together to talk about it,” she continued. “The No. 1 priority is to figure out how to help people who can’t afford the conversion because we have an issue with affordable housing and we can’t expect people already struggling to take out another mortgage or whatever it would take to pay for this.”
Private sector impact
SB 2567, in its original form, would have mandated a point of sale conversion requirement that homeowners with cesspools connect to a sewer or septic tank prior to any sale. Not anymore.
“Nobody is looking at mandating that at this point,” Lowen said.
Any legislation to that effect would be met with significant resistance by both real estate agents and homeowners, she added, as it would impact property values.
The stipulation is likely to come in a couple years, regardless of any action by state lawmakers, however.
Lowen said legislators recently met with representatives of one bank who explained that by 2020, mortgage institutions may include cesspool conversion requirements in any property sale. At that point, a standard 30-year mortgage would still be active by the time the 2050 conversion law passed last year by the Legislature kicks in.
The measure would protect banks from footing the bill for a conversion in the event of a foreclosure.
It’s unlikely banks would specify that the cost be picked up by buyer or seller, but would allow the conversion cost burden to be negotiated as part of the sale.