County to extend comment period for Pahala sewer plant

  • This image shows the site of the proposed sewer plant in Pahala and properties that would be connected.

Hawaii County plans to resubmit its draft environmental assessment for a Pahala wastewater treatment plant to allow for more public comments.

The document was published in September, and the 30-day comment period ended Monday.

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Bill Kucharski, county Environmental Management director, said he will today ask the state to republish it in order to extend the comment period for another 30 days, in response to at least one request from the public.

The county Environmental Management Commission also voted Wednesday to support an extension.

Kucharski said the request for an extension from a resident was based on concerns about there not being enough time to submit comments. There also were comments made about burials existing in lava tubes under the property, which he said the county will investigate.

“We didn’t find anything,” Kucharski said, regarding cultural resources at the site. “We’re looking further.”

The extension will allow for more comments to be submitted, which the county will then respond to as part of a proposed final EA.

The county is under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order to close large-capacity cesspools in both Pahala and Naalehu. Sewer projects are proposed for both communities.

Residents have expressed concern over the proposed locations and scope of the projects, which together could cost about $41 million.

On Thursday, Hilo Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura denied a motion from the county to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a Naalehu resident against both projects.

He also denied a request for a preliminary injunction from plaintiff Sandra Demoruelle, who is representing herself.

She said she was pleased with the result, noting the county has agreed to meet with her before the next hearing on Dec. 13. Demoruelle said she was unable to get a meeting previously.

“I didn’t want to go to the courtroom without talking to the opposing side,” she said.

“So I’m really happy to hear this because now we have set up an appointment to talk.”

Demoruelle said she thinks the county is skirting a more stringent review process by separating the projects. She’d like them both to be reviewed under the more thorough environmental impact statement process rather than separate environmental assessments.

“It seems like it’s overbuilt,” Demoruelle said, regarding the projects.

“But it could possibly be the proper way. But it’s never been discussed within the community and with the community.”

Kucharski said several meetings have been held in Naalehu and Pahala about the proposed locations for the projects.

Demoruelle said the meetings should be about more than the location.

Kucharski said the county is looking at a new preferred site in Naalehu after residents objected to a proposed location that was seen as too close to a school.

He said the new preferred site is more toward Kona and makai.

Kucharski said a preliminary engineering report for the Naalehu project was finished Thursday and that a draft EA could be due in about six months.

The proposed site for the Pahala project is at the intersection of Maile Street and Highway 11, on the mauka side. A macadamia nut orchard is currently located there.

Pahala resident Sophia Hanoa said she would prefer the plant be built on the makai side of the highway in part because she was told there are burials in caves on the property. She also thinks it would be less of an impact to the community there.

“We know it has to be done, but it has to be done properly,” she told the Environmental Management Commission on Wednesday.

The county evaluated about 25 sites in Pahala, Kucharski said, including the property across the highway.

The treatment facility would consist of four lined aerated lagoons and other facilities with odor controls.

The EA assessed nine potential sites. Building across the highway would require 3,200 more feet of pipe, the document says.

The Pahala project calls for connecting about 220 properties to a wastewater treatment plant to be built at the 14.9-acre site.

The EA says 12,120 linear feet of pipe would be installed.

The county has until mid-2021 to complete the Pahala project and 2022 to finish the work at Naalehu, he said.

If it misses those deadlines and doesn’t receive an extension, the county would face daily fines.

The plants will service homes currently on the large-capacity cesspools as well as properties along the path of the pipes. Kucharski said the facility will be designed so that it can eventually service the whole town if more pipes are installed.

He said county code requires someone with a structure adjacent to public sewer pipes to connect. He said that requirement will affect about 65 properties in Pahala under this plan.

The cost of connecting could be $10,000 and $20,000 for each home, Kucharski told the Environmental Management Commission.

The county will pay for the connections for properties on the large-capacity cesspool as required by its agreement with C. Brewer &Co., the former sugar company.

Others will be required to cover the cost on their own.

Kucharski said the county is looking for ways to provide them with assistance.

Wastewater treatment plants weren’t the county’s first proposed solution.

Use of large-capacity septic tanks, a cheaper though less environmentally-friendly solution, was outlined in a 2007 assessment.

When asked about the change, Kucharski refereed to the Ka‘u Community Development Plan, which he said calls for treatment plants for those communities.

“We have an obligation to sewer on the CDP,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s a small, localized community.

“So we’re not talking about 800 miles of sewer line. It will improve the environment, and it will stop pouring raw sewage into the environment, and it’s an appropriate technology, in my opinion.”

The state has set a deadline for the conversion of all cesspools by 2050.

Cesspools are an environmental and economic issue, noted Environmental Management Commissioner Jon Olson, since they can limit growth. He cited Pahoa as an example.

“Without a sewer system, you sit there and die,” he said at the Wednesday meeting.

Hanoa said she is concerned that the size of the proposed wastewater treatment plant could allow for more growth than the community wants.

Kucharski said the sewer plants are designed to service the existing communities with some population expansion.

“We’ve been accused of oversizing,” he said. “We’re not really oversizing. … We don’t say, ‘Let’s build for five times bigger than we need.’”

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To view the document, visit https://tinyurl.com/pahalasewer.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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