KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii County wants to deliver one message to Naalehu residents regarding plans to install a wastewater treatment facility in the region: Nothing has been decided and nothing has been finalized.
“We are in the beginning of the (environmental assessment) process, not the end,” said Bill Kucharski, director of the Department of Environmental Management. “Until we do an EA, we can not purchase property. We can not do anything. No final decision has been made as to where the facility will be located.”
He added it’s been a difficult bit of information to communicate for several reasons. Chief among them is an already compiled draft plan showing the preliminary design on a site next to Naalehu Elementary and Intermediate School.
Residents concerned about the potential location asked at a recent community meeting why money would be spent on a design if the site hadn’t already been determined.
Kucharski said it’s simply part of the process. The county has examined more than 20 potential sites in the area, running into various cultural and location issues at several of them.
“Right now, the consultant is taking a look at all sites to characterize them,” he explained. “Right now, the site we have that was most available is up by the school.”
Sandra Demoruelle, a Naalehu resident for nearly 40 years, said she doesn’t like the idea of open sewage ponds only a few hundred feet away from where her great-grandson receives his education.
“There’s always grave danger when they’re less than a football field away from open sewage ponds that they’ll drown,” she said. “I think it’s hard to build a childproof fence.”
She said residents were told by members of the environmental management commission that there is no health risk to breathing air in such close proximity to raw sewage. However, potential odors and their impact on quality of life are also concerns.
Kucharski called such issues “upset conditions” but said the wastewater treatment plant at Kealakehe has only suffered from one or two since its inception.
He also said sites can be engineered with negative pressure structures equipped with vents and carbon filters where effluent enters the plant to mitigate such problems.
“There’s always a chance that you’re going to get an upset condition,” he said. “I can’t guarantee that there’ll never be an upset. … It might not be the ideal positioning, but we would never go in and put a thing we thought would be any kind of danger to any of the residents, school children or otherwise.”
Others’ objections extend beyond the potential location of a sewage treatment system next to a school.
Both Demoruelle and Jerry Warren, another Naalehu resident, said they would have preferred if the county had stuck to an earlier plan it proposed in 2007.
An order of consent from the Environmental Protection Agency required the closure of large capacity cesspools (LCCs) in the area serving 163 households, which were supposed to be taken offline by 2005.
The plan Warren referred to would have installed large capacity septic tanks, converting the cesspools to seepage pits. According to the replacement project work plan, however, that plan was scrapped because the county determined it wasn’t the best treatment system option and that the LCCs were in poor condition and wouldn’t serve well as seepage pits.
Warren asserted the plan was changed and no one in the community was ever notified.
“Septic tanks would have been completed before we even got a sewer bill,” Warren said. “This whole 10 years of grief would never have occurred.”
He called the proposed system grandiose, comparing it to the wastewater treatment facility in Hilo, which has a 5 million gallon capacity but handles less than 2 million gallons of effluent per day.
“It’s so big that we don’t have enough effluent to even make the thing work,” Warren said. “It’s just expensive and it’s unnecessary.”
Kucharski said the decision on capacity for the plant won’t be made until location and other logistics are finalized, but he said there won’t be a replication of construction of a plant far bigger than what’s necessary.
He also said the system will be equipped to allow more than 163 households to hook up to it, although that’s not an official plan at the moment, merely a possibility for the future.
Hawaii County has until the end of 2022 to close the LCCs or it will face a penalty Kucharski said would amount to several hundred dollars daily after the deadline passes.
Where the facility is located and how large it will be remain up in the air; that it will be built is not a question. The projected cost of construction remains at $14 million.
“We have an obligation to comply with federal law and state law and also to protect the environment,” Kucharski said. “The sooner we can close these (cesspools), the better.”