HILO — Maybe the 31st time will be the charm.
After evaluating 29 sites, Hawaii County is looking at two more possibilities for a sewer plant in Naalehu.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given the county an extra two years to buy land for the project, while sticking to the current deadline for the closure of the gang cesspool there for April, 2022, according to a June 22 letter from the federal agency.
The county is under a consent order to close large-capacity cesspools in Naalehu and Pahala or face penalties. The county took over the cesspools from C. Brewer when the plantations were closed in the 1990s.
The $20.7 million Pahala project appears to be proceeding more smoothly than in Naalehu. Property owned by Kamehameha Schools has been identified as the best site of nine investigated. The next step is an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement before the land can be purchased, under state law.
Finding land for Naalehu’s $20.3 million project has been more difficult. The county’s most promising site, No. 29, has drawn community complaints about being too close to Naalehu Elementary and Intermediate School. Now the administration is moving farther afield, and is investigating two sites owned by Royal Hawaiian Coffee and Tea.
The county has until Nov. 27 to complete a phase 1 environmental site assessment, according to a report it filed with the EPA on June 26.
Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski said he’s not familiar with a process requiring the evaluation of so many sites, but it’s more difficult in Hawaii than the mainland. Land is more expensive and harder to find, he said.
“I am used to having no site that is going to be acceptable to everybody,” Kucharski said. “The county has looked at a lot of sites, that shows a lot of diligence.”
Unlike with the Lono Kona sewer project, where homeowners agreed to establish a special improvement district to pay for the lines with surcharges on their bills, the county is picking up the tab for the Ka‘u projects. The County Council agreed to issue bonds for the work.
But several Naalehu residents have regularly appeared before the Environmental Management Commission and the County Council, asking why the county has determined large sewer plants are needed, rather than sticking to an earlier plan to convert the gang cesspools to large capacity-septic systems at a much cheaper cost.
Sandra Demoruelle has filed a complaint in U.S. District Court seeking judicial review of EPA actions in allowing the county to change the mode of wastewater treatment without seeking public input first. She’d like to see an environmental impact statement for the project itself before the county commits to buying land for it.
“They’re selling the idea after the fact,” Demoruelle said.
Kucharski, in a June 14 letter to the EPA, said large-capacity septic systems wouldn’t be able to handle the population and had other disadvantages, including odors and the need to obtain a variance from the state that would have to be renewed every five years.
County consultants held three “talk story” sessions in the community in April and independently interviewed 19 individuals. But the way the process is set up, the real public comment — through the environmental assessment review — doesn’t occur until closer to the end of the process.
“It’s been a bit like a dog chasing its tail,” Richard Bennettt, chairman of the Environmental Management Commission, said at a meeting Wednesday. “I can understand the frustration. … (But) it looks to me that the process is finally straightforward now.”