Stinky problem points to need for sewer solution

  • Map showing existing and planned sewer improvements in Naalehu (Brown and Caldwell preliminary engineering report/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • This 2003 West Hawaii Today front page shows Jerry Warren with the problematic Naalehu gang cesspool. (Joseph Demoruelle/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Naalehu resident Jerry Warren stands near a trench Jan. 24, 2020, for the gang cesspool system there. (Joseph Demoruelle/Special to West Hawaii Today)

A sewer system for Naalehu has been talked about for decades, but it can come none too soon, as a stinky problem last week demonstrated.

An old cast-iron pipe collapsed, leading to a blockage that sent sewage bubbling up into some residents’ toilets and bathtub drains, according to Jerry Warren, who’s been lobbying for improvements to the old plantation gang cesspool system for years.

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“What a horror movie,” Warren said Monday. “I knew this day was coming.”

Warren praised the workers who started repairing the pipes Wednesday and continued through the weekend. He said the workers were very “nice” although they had to dig up his back and side yards.

“This old stuff is all rotten,” Warren said. “They put in a lot of new stuff.”

Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski estimated the workers had to replace as much as 100 feet of pipe after roots growing into the system caused the pipe collapse and blockage.

“The long and the short of it is the system that currently exists is in very, very poor shape,” Kucharski said. “The sooner we get a new system in there the better it will be for the environment, the people and our people.”

The community, which includes 160 houses on gang cesspools, will be transferred to a new $40.5 million sewer plant that’s currently in the process of getting an environmental assessment. It’s proposed to be built makai of the Naalehu Hongwanji.

A consultant is working on an environmental assessment, which should be published this summer, Kucharski said.

Warren has been at odds with the county over how the problem should be addressed. The community was given a ballot to chose their preference for the new system and they chose a septic tank system, Warren said.

“The county should keep its original promise and go back to the original plan,” Warren said. “Build the sewer lines first. All they got to do is put the new sewer lines to the street… we already have gang cesspools .. … Hook them up to septic tanks.”

Kucharski said subsequent tests showed the septic system wouldn’t work there, leading to the more expensive plant design.

The county is under a consent order with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to close the gang cesspools in Naalehu by 2022 because the cesspools, which basically send the waste to a hole in the ground, lead to groundwater contamination and increase the risk of ocean pollution.

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A similar situation exists in Pahala, with an environmental assessment for that project expected to be published this spring.

While residents hooked up to the cesspools will not have to pay to connect to the new sewer, owners of property along the sewer lines are required by county code to connect at their own expense. About 66 properties will have to pay to connect, which could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000.

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