Naalehu residents raise concern after wastewater treatment facility preliminary design puts it next to school

KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii County wants to deliver one message to Naalehu residents about plans to install a wastewater treatment facility in the region: Nothing is decided and nothing is finalized.

“We are in the beginning of the (environmental assessment) process, not the end,” said Bill Kucharski, director of the county Department of Environmental Management. “Until we do an EA, we can not purchase property. We can not do anything. No final decision has been made as to where the facility will be located.”

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He added it’s been a difficult bit of information to communicate for several reasons. Chief among them is an already compiled draft plan showing the preliminary design on a site next to Naalehu Elementary and Intermediate School.

Residents concerned about the potential location asked during a recent community meeting why money would be spent on a design if a site wasn’t already determined.

Kucharski said it’s simply part of the process. The county examined more than 20 potential sites in the area, running into various cultural and location issues at several of them.

“Right now, the consultant is taking a look at all sites to characterize them,” he explained. “Right now, the site we have that was most available is up by the school.”

Sandra Demoruelle, a Naalehu resident for nearly 40 years, said she doesn’t like the idea of open sewage ponds only a few hundred feet away from where her great-grandson receives his education.

“There’s always grave danger when they’re less than a football field away from open sewage ponds that they’ll drown,” she said. “I think it’s hard to build a childproof fence.”

She said residents were told by members of the environmental management commission that there is no health risk to breathing air in such close proximity to raw sewage. However, potential odors and their impact on quality of life also are concerns.

Kucharski called such issues “upset conditions,” but said the wastewater treatment plant at Kealakehe has only suffered from one or two since its inception.

He also said sites can be engineered with negative pressure structures equipped with vents and carbon filters to mitigate such problems.

“There’s always a chance that you’re going to get an upset condition,” he said. “I can’t guarantee that there’ll never be an upset. … It might not be the ideal positioning, but we would never go in and put a thing we thought would be any kind of danger to any of the residents, school children or otherwise.”

Others’ objections extend beyond the potential location of a sewage treatment system next to a school.

Demoruelle and Jerry Warren, another Naalehu resident, said they would have preferred if the county stuck with an earlier plan it proposed in 2007. That plan would have installed large capacity septic tanks, converting the cesspools to seepage pits.

According to the replacement project work plan, however, that plan was scrapped because the county determined it wasn’t the best treatment system option.

Kucharski said the decision on capacity for the plant won’t be made until location and other logistics are finalized. He also said the system will be equipped to allow more than 163 households to hook up to it, although that’s not an official plan at the moment.

An order of consent from the Environmental Protection Agency required the closure of large capacity cesspools in the area, which were supposed to be taken offline by 2005.

Hawaii County has until the end of 2022 to close the cesspools or it will face a penalty Kucharski said would amount to several hundred dollars daily after the deadline passes.

The projected cost of construction $14 million.

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“We have an obligation to comply with federal law and state law and also to protect the environment,” Kucharski said. “The sooner we can close these (cesspools), the better.”

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.

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