EPA fines county over ongoing Ka‘u sewage issues

  • IOKEPA-MOSES

  • IOKEPA-MOSES

  • ROTH

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday it has fined Hawaii County $28,500 for missing a deadline to submit a complete design of a wastewater treatment facility in Pahala under a 2017 consent order requiring the county to replace decades-old gang cesspools in Pahala and Naalehu.

“County of Hawaii has failed to meet its legal commitment to modernize wastewater infrastructure,” said Amy Miller, EPA Pacific Southwest regional director of the Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division, in a statement. “EPA expects the county to expeditiously construct the Pahala wastewater treatment facility to protect drinking water and coastal resources on the Big Island.”

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Under the 2017 order, the county agreed to close five gang cesspools that serve the Pahala and Naalehu communities and replace them with wastewater treatment facilities approved by the state Department of Health. The county was required to complete the Pahala sewage treatment plant design and have it approved by the DOH by July 24.

The agreement calls for approximately 272 properties served by the gang cesspools in Pahala and Naalehu be connected to new county wastewater treatment facilities. An additional 95 properties not currently served by the cesspools also would receive access to the new wastewater treatment facilities.

Mayor Mitch Roth said in a statement his administration “has been working diligently with the EPA and the community to close the large capacity cesspools in Pahala and Naalehu.”

“However, upon revaluation of the project and discovery in April of a more extensive lava tube system than previously anticipated, we consciously decided to do further environmental review to select a wastewater treatment plant that will reduce environmental and fiscal concerns,” Roth said. “We understood then that the decision would result in fines, and we chose to move forward as it is in the community’s best interest to create permanent solutions rather than temporary fixes.

“That said, we understand the seriousness of the fine and will continue to work hard to meet the remaining compliance deadlines — so long as we may do so without jeopardizing the health and safety of our residents and the environments in which they live. The bottom line is that (a new plant) will yield reduced costs and reduced environmental impacts, far outweighing the current fines.”

Cyrus Johnasen, the mayor’s spokesman, and Deputy Environmental Management Director Brenda Iokepa-Moses said the fine was part of a “stipulated judgment” — which means the county acknowledged missing the EPA-mandated deadline and agreed to the fine.

“We made a conscious decision to push back the date, knowing we’d miss the deadline, in an effort to find a better location for the wastewater treatment plant that would be a more sustainable solution for the problem,” Johnasen said.

A final environmental assessment was published in March 2020 for a facility in Pahala with a concrete lagoon lining, but Iokepa-Moses said that system has “a bigger environmental footprint than they really need for that community.”

Environmental Management Director Ramzi Mansour told the county’s Environmental Management Commission in January he was meeting with consultants for the $130 million project and was looking for a less expensive solution that would satisfy EPA and DOH requirements.

Mansour said he thinks only one sewage treatment plant is needed to serve Pahala and Naalehu, not two as had been planned.

Mansour also told the commission he’s investigating an alternative that would use modular units that can be assembled on site and added to or subtracted from as community needs change. Mansour said the project currently on the books also would require about $400,000 per home to connect to the sewer system.

Iokepa-Moses said Mansour’s plan will “save the community (from) having a bigger environmental footprint … (and) it’ll save the taxpayers a large sum of money.”

“So, we have to revisit the EA and get community input again,” she said. “… We’re looking at a wastewater treatment plant or a mechanized system. … Both of them are less intrusive on the environment and a lot more … affordable for the county.”

Plans for a less expensive wastewater treatment plant in Naalehu that the community favored and a 2007 EA found had no significant impact were scrapped in favor of the lagoon system plant. Two Naalehu residents, Sandra Demoruelle and Jerry Warren, previously asked the county to follow the original plan.

Demoruelle sued the county, unsuccessfully, while Warren was taken to small claims court by the county for not paying his sewer bills in protest.

Iokepa-Moses said while the administration has rejected the system that gained environmental approval last year, the future of sewage treatment for Ka‘u residents is still open for discussion.

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“Until we get the final approval from the EPA and the EA is done and we find out which route we’re going … we’re looking at less than $40 million for the collection system and the sewer system in Pahala,” she said.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.