KAILUA-KONA — The Hawaii County Environmental Management Commission last week resolved that the county should exceed goals and policies of the federal Clean Water Act regarding wastewater discharge rather than merely comply with the letter of the law.
“We need to balance if the benefit is worth the additional cost, that’s really what this debate is about,” said county Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski.
He added the county has the ability to turn all its wastewater into drinking water but doing so would increase treatment costs fivefold to tenfold.
“You can always do more,” Kucharski continued. “The question is (whether) that marginal cost and that marginal benefit at the increased cost is a viable way to go. There are many things we can do. None of these things are inexpensive.”
During its monthly meeting March 28 at the West Hawaii Civic Center, the Environmental Management Commission spoke of Hawaii Island’s responsibility to protect its oceans and recommended in a resolution the county adopt a program commensurate with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System standards and practices.
“The commission voted unanimously not to play regulatory games or go down the legal path — let’s simply do what’s right,” said Commissioner Dr. Rick Bennett.
The commission’s action came in the wake of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Feb. 1 in a lawsuit brought against Maui County by Earthjustice on behalf of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation and West Maui Preservation Society.
The ruling upheld a decision that found Maui County in violation of the Clean Water Act through its use of injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility, into which it pumped treated wastewater that co-mingled with groundwater and ultimately flowed into the ocean.
The initial ruling dictates that any connection between wastewater discharge and the ocean is considered direct, even if groundwater acts as the proverbial middle man in the transaction. To discharge such effluent then, any entity must obtain an NPDES permit.
Maui County is appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Bennett and other commissioners think if it holds, Hawaii County could face similar liability for wastewater discharge on the Big Island.
“If somebody had the resources to do that, they could sue us easily,” Bennett said.
Kucharski said if the decision holds it likely will impact the way Hawaii County, as well as much of the rest of the country, treats its wastewater discharge.
However, he added that the state Department of Health determines standards for effluent and Hawaii County has continuously complied with those standards.
“I’m only an operator,” Kucharski said. “I don’t set standards. I’m given the standards I need to meet.”
Hawaii Island has two injection wells, one at Kaloko and one at Honokaa, which pump about 200,000 gallons daily. Both sites operate on an underground injection control permit governed by standards set by the DOH.
“We do not have any indication that our discharges have a direct connection to the ocean where we have a UIC permit,” Kucharski said. “Right now we have our permits, we’re meeting the permit standards, we’re monitoring … and we’re in compliance.”
But if the courts demand changes, Hawaii Island will remedy its facilities to meet the elevated standards.
Exact figures are impossible to generate at this point, Kucharski said, but the cost of court-mandated changes would be significant.
“The cost will depend on what standard (is implemented) for discharge,” he explained. “We can modify any of the systems, it’s just a matter of how much money we can put into it and how quickly we can get the designs done.”
To provide some context, closing the island’s roughly 50,000 cesspools is estimated to cost upward of $1 billion over the next 30 years, although that will be property owner cost and not county cost. Connecting everyone to sewer lines is projected to cost in excess of $500 million.
The county is in the preliminary phases of transitioning the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Facility to produce R1 water, or recycled water treated to a level safe enough to use on golf courses or in several other capacities. The price tag for the 5 million-gallon capacity facility, which now pumps about 1.8 million gallons daily, is $54 million.
What Bennett and the other commissioners want is an immediate and voluntary commitment from the county to impose the highest possible standards on wastewater discharge. What the commission is suggesting might cost even more than changes mandated by the courts and county coffers are currently strained to their limits.
Immediate funding for changes to water treatment proposed by the commission would ultimately have to come in the form of grants, which Bennett said the commission can pursue.
Until the state mandates changes, however, Kucharski said the department is content to stay on its current path.
“We are trying to balance what is the right thing to do, and right now the right thing to do is comply with the standards established by DOH under the auspices of the EPA,” he said. “So long as we’re doing that, we feel like we’re doing our part.”
Email Max Dible at firstname.lastname@example.org.