Council eyes state support for wastewater issues

  • Ramzi Mansour

The Hawaii County Council is urging the state to seek solutions for the mounting wastewater problems on Hawaii Island.

A resolution discussed at Wednesday’s council meeting would urge the state legislature to set funding for wastewater management projects around the state as one of its legislative goals next year.

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Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball, who introduced the resolution and waived its prior reading at committee, said the county is facing very expensive and necessary wastewater projects that it cannot finance alone, and called for the state to develop possible systems that could support those projects in cooperation with the county.

“We need $1 billion for facilities improvement, another $1 billion for cesspool conversion,” Kimball said, citing estimates from the county Department of Environmental Management. “Are we going to put that on the taxpayers?”

The day before, at a meeting of the Regenerative Agriculture, Water, Energy and Environmental Management Committee, Environmental Management Director Ramzi Mansour said the county is facing the monumental challenge of converting the bulk of the county’s housing developments away from cesspool systems. But because there are only about 15,000 users of the county’s sewer service, the department isn’t receiving enough fees to fund such a conversion.

Furthermore, Mansour said, 86% of all equipment at the Hilo Wastewater Treatment Plant needs to be either replaced or repaired. Similarly, 65% of the equipment at Kula‘imano Wastewater Treatment Plant is failing, as is 72% of the equipment at the plant in Papaikou.

Restoring just the Hilo plant to a functional state would cost $86 million, Mansour said. Restoring all three would cost $165 million.

Because of the department’s outstanding funding problems — as well as the difficulties inherent in securing grant funding — Mansour recommended that the county pursue public-private partnerships in order to complete the necessary wastewater projects, which was echoed in Kimball’s resolution Wednesday.

The resolution specifically named Senate Bill 997, a state measure introduced in the 2021 legislative session that would have allowed county governments to enter into such public-private partnerships for wastewater management — or transfer wastewater management to a private entity outright. That bill fatally stalled in February, but Kimball said it served its purpose of starting a discussion on the matter.

Reception to the bills during its single public testimony hearing was mixed, with workers’ unions voicing opposition to utilities privatisation. However, it had its supporters as well, including Mansour — who wrote that “the County simply cannot afford to be the sole designer, builder, and operator of wastewater treatment plants to serve the whole island” — and Lee Lord, who was acting mayor at the time while Mayor Mitch Roth was recovering from a heart attack.

Kimball said she had to fast-track the resolution in order to get a legislative package ready by a December deadline, but added that there will further opportunities for public input as the matter progresses. She also emphasized that the resolution does not prescribe any specific solution and that the answer may not involve public-private partnerships at all.

However, the discussion spurred by the resolution was not all positive. Hilo councilman Aaron Chung said he agreed with the need to address wastewater issues, but added that the resolution was too vague to support.

“I’m not opposed to the idea, I mean, who could be against ‘developing an innovative approach to secure funding?’” Chung said, directly quoting from the title of the resolution. “But I don’t want to vote in support of this and have it be used as evidence that the council supports wastewater privatization.”

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Despite Chung’s statements, he was the only council member to vote against adopting the resolution.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.