Hawai`i County Faces Lawsuit Threat Over Kealakehe Sewage Treatment Plant

posted in: July 2014 | 0

Steve Holmes, once a member of the Honolulu City Council representing Windward O`ahu and now a resident of Kona, is threatening to take Hawai`i County to federal court over the operation of its Kealakehe sewage treatment plant.

Like the Lahaina plant in Maui, the Kealakehe plant was designed to have treated effluent be used for irrigation and landscaping. A golf course – planned but never built – was to act as a leach field for most of the treated wastewater, with the rest diverted onto an “artificial wetland.” Again as with the Lahaina plant, the county has yet to develop the plumbing needed to reuse any of the effluent, more than a quarter century after the plant was built.

Where the plants differ is in their method of effluent disposal. Lahaina uses injection wells. The Kealakehe plant releases its effluent into shallow, unlined ponds ponds just south of Honokohau Harbor, seaward of Queen Ka`ahumanu Highway.

In the wake of the federal court decision finding that the Lahaina plant needed a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, Holmes complained about the Kealakehe plant to the Environmental Protection Agency, which he says is launching its own investigation.

A joint U.S. Geological Survey-state Department of Health study from 2008 that took water samples from several monitoring wells and springs near the plant supports Holmes’ claims that effluent from the Kealakehe plant is reaching the sea.

However, the director of the county’s Department of Environmental Management, B.J. Leithead-Todd, told Erin Miller of West Hawai`i Today that a tracer dye test done a decade ago did not establish a link.

Holmes said he had not heard of the test she mentioned. He characterized it as an attempt at “misdirection, since Chip Hunt” – author of the USGS study – “used a number of valid indicators. It is magical thinking that you can dump that much sewage down a lava tube and not have it move downslope.”

Asked for details on the study mentioned by Leithead-Todd, Lyle Hirota, head of the Wastewater Division of the DEM, said the study had been done about a decade ago by the DOH Clean Water Branch. Watson Okubo, with the CWB, told Environment Hawai`i that the state had done a dye test. “We threw a couple bottles of dye” into the ponds and monitored the nearshore area “for about a week or so.” The experience at Lahaina has been instructive, he said, where it took at least 85 days for the any of the dye placed in the injection wells to reach the coast.

Still, Okubo said, “there’s a great difference between Kealakehe and Lahaina. There are a lot of package plants [septic systems] and cesspools near the harbor that still discharge…. It’s premature to say there’s a direct discharge” between the county’s facility and the coast.

Asked if a dye test was being planned, Okubo said that would be up “to the experts at the University of Hawai`i,” adding that the DOH had no plans to conduct further tests there.

In the late 1980s, Holmes, then president of Kokua Hilo Bay, sued Hawai`i County over the operation of its Hilo sewage treatment plant. The county had been seeking a waiver from Clean Water Act requirements, but, Holmes says, “the plant didn’t even meet the legal definition for primary treatment.” The county then built a new plant outside the tsunami inundation zone, on the far side of the Hilo airport.

The design capacity of the Kealakehe plant is 5.3 million gallons a day. However, accumulated sludge and other problems have limited it to the point it now treats about 1.5 mgd. Five years ago, the county received $4 million to alleviate the sludge problem and $6 million to install aeration equipment, both needed to help the plant regain capacity needed to handle the wastewater that used to go into closed-down gang cesspools. The work has yet to be completed and Leithead-Todd now says that repairing the plant will cost $18 million.

The county, says Holmes, “really needs to hire a consulting engineering firm if, as Leithead-Todd claims, they have only two staff engineers and are too overwhelmed to get the job done.”

(Leithead-Todd, a lawyer by training, is not an engineer; although the county charter was amended several years ago to require the post to be filled by someone with experience in engineering or related field, Mayor Billy Kenoi appointed her to the position after her tenure as head of the Planning Department generated several serious controversies and lawsuits. She now is being sued in a quo warranto action by Hawai`i County Councilmember Brenda Ford, who claims Leithead-Todd should not be allowed to remain in her current job.)

“I am arguing,” Holmes said, “that the county should be moving ahead with planning, design, and preparation of an environmental impact statement concurrently, while fixing the old plant. They should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.”


– Patricia Tummons


Volume 25, Number 1 July 2014


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