HONOLULU — The Hawaii Pubic Library System is seeking authority from state lawmakers to pay the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nearly $144,000 in penalties for its continued use of large-capacity cesspools that were banned in 2005.
Mallory Fujitani, special assistant to State Librarian Stacey Aldrich, said her office first learned of the illegal cesspools in 2017 when an EPA inspector visited the Waialua Public Library. The same inspector visited the Kealakekua Public Library on Hawaii Island later that year and identified prohibited cesspools at both facilities.
Lawmakers are set to take up the request
Fujitani said the library system then set aside some of its health and safety lump-sum funding to begin planning and design work to close out the cesspools and replace them with legally allowable wastewater systems.
The construction bids were opened in late May, but she declined to say how much the work will cost because the contract has not been finalized. The state Department of Accounting and General Services estimated the work at both sites will cost about $350,000 in all. That does not include the cost of the EPA fines.
“Obviously if we spend it over there, then I can’t do something else, but this is high priority,” Fujitani said.
Fujitani said she does not know if there were internal discussions within the library system or within DAGS between 2005 and 2017 about closing out the cesspools “because most of us were not here.” All large-capacity cesspools were supposed to be closed by April 5, 2005.
Alejandro Diaz, public affairs specialist for the Pacific Islands Contact Office of the EPA, declined to say when the library cesspools were first discovered by the federal agency or when the library system was first notified of the problem. Diaz also refused to say whether the proposed fine was reduced during negotiations with the state.
He issued a written statement saying only that “EPA does not comment on pending litigation.”
The library system is responsible for 53 buildings, including 51 libraries located on six islands, Fujitani said, and library officials launched a survey to determine whether there were any other banned cesspools in their inventory.
Large-capacity cesspools were banned in 2005 through rules developed pursuant to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. More than 3, 600 large-capacity cesspools in Hawaii have been closed since then. However, the EPA says “many hundreds” more remain in operation.
Cesspools collect and discharge untreated raw sewage into the ground, where disease-causing pathogens and harmful chemicals can contaminate groundwater, streams and the ocean, according to the EPA. Groundwater provides 95% of all domestic water in Hawaii, and cesspools are used more widely here than in any other state.
In 2017, the state Legislature passed Act 125, which requires the closure of all cesspools by 2050.
West Hawaii Today staff contributed to this report.