A royal flush: Some Ka‘u residents face hefty bills for mandated sewer connections

  • TOM CALLIS/Tribune-Herald Residents view displays regarding the proposed Naalehu wastewater treatment plant Tuesday evening at Naalehu Community Center.

  • TOM CALLIS/Tribune-Herald Michelle Sorensen, project engineer for consultant Brown and Caldwell, discusses a proposed Naalehu wastewater treatment plant Tuesday evening at the Naalehu Community Center.

By 2050, the state requires all 88,000 cesspools in Hawaii, most of which are on Hawaii Island, to be closed.

In Naalehu and Pahala, some residents are facing a much sooner deadline, potentially at substantial expense.

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Hawaii County is moving ahead with construction of wastewater treatment plants for both communities so it can close gang cesspools, also known as large-capacity cesspools, there as mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Homes that use the gang cesspools, a legacy of the sugar plantation era, won’t have to pay for their connections.

But others who live along the path of the sewer lines will have to connect, per county code, and pay for the expense.

That cost could be between $10,000 and $20,000 for each property, according to county estimates.

While the projects will eliminate sources of groundwater pollution, they also are leaving affected residents wondering how they are going to pay for it. That was one of the primary concerns expressed Tuesday evening during a meeting at the Naalehu Community Center about the proposed site of the Naalehu treatment plant.

“It’s a lot of cost that a lot of us here just can’t afford,” resident Louann Ah Yee told the Tribune-Herald.

Bill Kucharski, county Environmental Management director, said he understands the bind they are being put in.

“This is the question the county is struggling with,” he said when asked what happens if the property owners can’t pay for the connection.

Kucharski added some homes might only be worth $40,000, and it “doesn’t make sense” to pay up to half that amount for conversion.

He said the county is looking at “everything we can to help mitigate or remove the costs of connections.”

Speakers didn’t address any potential solutions, but some noted a meeting to discuss those options is tentatively scheduled for March 21 in Pahala.

A bill in the state Legislature — Senate Bill 221 — would authorize the state Department of Health to create a low-interest loan program for converting cesspools to septic tanks or connecting to a sewer system.

The $41 million treatment plant, which will use oxygen and microbes to break down waste, is proposed to be built makai of the Naalehu Hongwanji.

The preferred location was changed from another site, which faced community opposition, on the Puna side of Naalehu Elementary School.

The Naalehu plant will connect 163 homes that are currently using gang cesspools, plus another 66 properties that will be required to connect, said Michelle Sorensen, project engineer for consultant Brown and Caldwell. The latter increased after the proposed location was changed.

One of those affected by the change is the Hongwanji, which spent less than $10,000 replacing its cesspool with a septic system in 2007.

Iwao Yonemitsu, a former president of the Buddhist church, said that was done to comply with county or state requirements since more than 15 people gather there.

Yonemitsu expressed support for the intent of the project after the meeting, but noted it would be fair if the Hongwanji could receive a rebate for already closing its cesspool.

The EPA requires closure of the gang cesspools in Naalehu in 2022 and Pahala in 2021. There are no existing wastewater treatment facilities for those communities.

A draft environmental assessment was published for the Pahala project. That treatment plant was estimated to cost $28 million to $30 million, and will connect 185 properties, including 65 not on the gang cesspools.

For the Naalehu project, a draft EA likely will be released in late May or early June, Sorensen said.

The county faces fines of up to $32,500 per day per gang cesspool for missing the deadlines, she said.

Both facilities would use natural treatment systems with lined aerated lagoons, as well as constructed wetlands and tree groves where the treated water will be deposited.

Sludge would be stored in the bottom of the lagoons for 20 to 30 years before being disposed in a landfill.

One resident at the meeting said he thought Naalehu was getting a great project, with cost of construction paid by the county as a whole.

Several others expressed concern about the cost of connecting and ongoing costs from monthly wastewater bills many currently don’t have to pay.

Sewer fees are now $27 per month but will increase to $54 in 2023. Kuchsarki said those are the lowest in the state.

Fees for gang cesspools also are set to increase from $15 a month to $25 a month within that time period.

The increases are meant to make the wastewater division self-sufficient, he has said.

In response to a question, Kucharski said a large-capacity septic tank isn’t a viable option because it would not have “acceptable percolation.”

Treatment plants are in compliance with the Ka‘u Community Development Plan, he noted.

The Naalehu plant would sit on about 15 acres, with much of that consisting of the wetlands or tree groves.

The site is located on a more than 2,200-acre site that was designated for conservation.

Kucharski said it would not affect cultural features that are concentrated by the ocean 2.5 miles away.

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The state Land Board last month voted to allow for the removal of the upper 25 acres of the property from a conservation easement to allow construction of the facility.

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

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