KAILUA-KONA — Friction between county officials and West Hawaii septage haulers has been mounting for months as pumpers contend policies at the Kealakehe Waste Water Treatment Facility are onerous and costing them money.
Complaints range from disposal regulations to a general lack of access including a 24-hour appointment notice policy and what they describe as frequent unresponsiveness to their requests to utilize the only dumping site on the leeward side of Hawaii Island.
“If we can’t dump, we can’t pump,” said William Wilton, who runs CW Pumping.
Randy Miguel, owner of ABC Cesspool and Septic Pumping, said he’s reached the point of considering the sale of his company.
“I’ve had it with this whole system — it’s affecting the general public,” said Miguel, adding he’s concerned access issues could lead desperate haulers, or customers they’re unable to serve, to resort to illegal dumping. “It could happen. If somebody can not dispose of a load … where are they going to take it? That’s going to shut them out of business.”
Bill Kucharski, director of the Hawaii County Department of Environmental Management, acknowledged a staffing shortage has led to some legitimate frustrations among the handful of operators in the niche but crucial septic and cesspool pumping industry.
However, Kucharski largely disagreed with pumpers’ characterizations of how the WWTF at Kealakehe has been managed.
“The (County of Hawaii) does not have unlimited personnel or funding,” said Kucharski, adding those who oversee the dumping also work in the field and that attracting candidates to a career in sewage can prove difficult.
“If we are doing something wrong or inefficiently, we will examine the process and modify it as best we can within the constraints of our budget and manpower,” he continued. “We have modified our procedures in response to the complaints from the haulers.”
Kucharski also said the responsibility for any illegal dumping that might occur rests solely with the offender, not the system, and will never be condoned.
First and foremost, haulers say they need to get through the gates at WWTF. Hours of operation are 7-11 a.m. and 12-2 p.m. Access times have more or less remained the same over the years, Miguel conceded.
However, he said within the last several months the county has implemented a new “one-sided” contract haulers must sign if they want to use the facility.
“Basically, it states they can turn people away at any time,” said Miguel, adding it’s happened to him without warning.
Kucharski said the permit application remains unchanged, adding the stipulation exists “so that if operational issues at the (WWTF) are occurring, the county can modify the receiving times and where the waste is pumped at the facility.”
The second, and perhaps most vexing issue for haulers, is the 24-hour advance appointment requirement. Wilton said the stipulation doesn’t fit with the nature of the industry.
“To call 24 hours ahead we’d have to call every single day because you never know when you’re going to get a pump. A lot of people call me in the afternoon (or after hours) with emergencies,” said Wilton, noting Kona Commons and Kona Community Hospital have each been after-hours customers. “We need 24-hour access in case of emergencies.”
Wilton and Miguel both complained that county employees often aren’t available to take phone calls. The office has an answering machine that employees pledge to check four times daily, but Wilton said that’s proved inconsistent.
“I called two days in a row and all I got was an answering machine,” he said. “They weren’t answering the phones there for a while.”
Miguel said based on the current system, any call made after noon won’t get the hauler in until the following day and weekend access needs to be made by appointment three hours before close of business Friday, which he described as unrealistic.
“I feel that we pay enough to dispose of our waste to pay for two workers, seven days a week,” Miguel said. “If it’s a shopping center or business and it’s still flowing, they can’t just shut their doors. It’ll become a public health matter.”
Both men said they’ve been told to hold loads in their trucks until the next availability or to transfer their load to a competitor’s truck then go pump an emergency load and bring both in at the next available time.
Haulers say the lack of access has led to some local businesses waiting for days at a time to get a pump because all the pumpers are waiting days themselves to unload their trucks or are back loaded with appointments.
Kucharski said the 24-hour appointment requirement was implemented in response to complaints about wait times and is the fairest process that also allows a limited staff to make sure it can meet haulers’ needs.
The department also plans to implement a cellphone call-in process in the future, he added.
“This is expected to make the appointment process more efficient by allowing our worker(s) to be working away from the main office land line and still be responsive,” Kucharski said.
Haulers say county officials are told not to answer cell phone calls made to personal numbers.
An element that complicates dumping is a regulation against fat, oil and grease (FOG) intermingling with regular sewage. Haulers are limited to 100 parts per million, which Wilton said equals out to about half a cup in the average truckload.
Miguel said no lab exists in Kona to test loads for FOG, meaning employees at the facility make decisions based on an eye test. Kucharski explained why and said the department tries to accommodate haulers as best it can.
“Using our lab for testing would be extremely time consuming for the haulers,” he said. “As an alternative to a visual check … we could require septage haulers to provide test data certifying that every waste load does not contain a ‘prohibited waste,’ but we do not require this for every load.”
Wilton said the system can complicate service to some food service businesses because grease traps aren’t always 100 percent effective. While it’s never happened to him, pumping such businesses’ tanks can be risky because if too much FOG is absorbed, loads need to sit in trucks while they’re treated with chemicals.
Miguel said the practice is unfair because homes and restaurants connected to sewer lines aren’t subject to the same requirements. Kucharski said while that’s mostly correct because the department has no way to regulate what entities connected to sewer lines are dumping, all restaurants are required to install grease traps regardless of the waste system they operate.
“The WWTF can process low levels of FOG, but the facility can not knowingly accept a load of waste that violates FOG pre-treatment standards,” Kucharski said. “We must control the input of FOG (where we can) into our facility.”
Miguel said haulers only see action from the county when businesses call in to complain about how policies are impacting service. Kucharski noted, however, he’s unaware of any such complaint calls having been placed by the public.
The department has set a public meeting at 4 p.m. on May 4 at the West Hawaii Civic Center, Building G, to hash out issues concerning FOG and all other operator concerns.
Email Max Dible at firstname.lastname@example.org.