Health Department Awaits Outcome of Negotiations regarding Ala Wai Spill

posted in: November 2006 | 0

It’s been seven months since the main line to Waikiki’s Beachwalk wastewater pump station cracked open, causing the city to divert 48 million gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai canal. But while the six-day spill and its effects on Honolulu’s beaches and waterways have been slowly eclipsed by more pressing news, discussion about the spill and lessons learned from it has continued in a quiet lecture hall at the University of Hawai`i’s Manoa campus, with the university’s Water Resources Research Center lecture series on various aspects related to the event, including everything from water and sand quality sampling methods to marine-related infections and diseases.

This month, the series features a talk by Dolan Eversole of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and Sea Grant about sand replenishment and discolored sediments, and Gerald Kato and Thomas Kelleher of the UH School of Communications will discuss the impact of the media on the development of public opinion, perception and action.

While the series touches on a wide variety of subjects, enforcement of state and federal clean water laws is not one of them. And anyone looking to find out what’s going on is likely to come up empty, at least until negotiations between all parties affected by the spill are complete.

That’s been frustrating for Libby Stoddard, an engineer with the state Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch.

“I’m in the middle of it and I don’t even know what’s going on,” she says. For the past few years Stoddard has been in charge of overseeing the city’s compliance with an April 2004 Notice of Violation and Order regarding the city’s history of force main spills.

Earlier this year, when Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann sought an emergency declaration from Governor Lingle to allow the installation of a temporary sewage bypass line along the floor of the Ala Wai, letters from his office indicated that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice had planned to pursue a stipulated order regarding critical force mains and the March 2006 spill, and that the city and the federal government planned to finalize an agreement on upgrades to the city’s critical force mains some time in early July.

That never happened. Instead, the parties chose to negotiate, in lieu of pursuing costly litigation, Stoddard says.

Ross Tanimoto of the City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services, speaking at the WRRC’s first seminar in the series, admitted, “There are discussions, which I am not at liberty to discuss now, ongoing with the EPA and a third party, as far as how much effort should we place [on certain sewer projects]. I think we’re coming to an amicable agreement. It is a high priority for the city, a high priority for the third party, and a high priority for EPA-DOH. The exact number, I’m not at liberty to discuss at this point.”

(The third party Tanimoto spoke of is most likely the hui of environmental groups including Hawai`i’s Thousand Friends, the Hawai`i chapter of the Sierra Club and Our Children’s Earth Foundation, which in July 2004 sued the city in federal court for alleged Clean Water Act violations resulting from more than 1,200 sewage spills since 1999. In October 2005, U.S. District Judge David Ezra dismissed most of the hui’s charges, and the group subsequently moved to become a party to a prior lawsuit the state DOH and the EPA filed against the city, which resulted in a 1995 consent decree intended to force the city to repair and better maintain its sewage system and reduce its number of sewage spills. All parties involved in that case met in late September to discuss how to proceed, but no details of that meeting have been released.

Donna Wong, director of Hawai`’s Thousand Friends, told Environment Hawai`i that she is barred from discussing the case, except to say that the Ala Wai spill, the DOH’s force main NOV, and a federal lawsuits regarding the city’s sewage system are all related.

EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi and DOH Environmental Health administrator Lawrence Lau also say they can’t comment on the status of negotiations.

“We really want to take our time on this. We don’t want to negotiate in the media,” Higuchi says, adding that a decision will be announced when negotiations are complete.

In the meantime, Stoddard says her force main Notice-of-Violation case is in limbo. The April 2004 order, issued shortly after a broken force main to the city’s Ala Moana pumping station spilled two million gallons of sewage into Honolulu Harbor, required the city to assess its force mains and draft maintenance and repair plans. In October 2004, the city submitted a force main repair and upgrade program report, a force main contingency plan, a force main condition assessment program, and a force main preventative maintenance plan to the DOH for review and comment.

In its reports, the city identified several critical force mains, including the Beachwalk force main, in need of immediate repair or construction. While the Beachwalk force main had never been physically inspected for structural or hydraulic defects, it was deemed critical because of its age (built in 1964), location (in the heart of Waikiki), amount of flow (an average of 12.7 million gallons a day) and because, unlike all other major force mains, it did not have a back-up line. Although the city had issued a contract in 1998 to begin designing a new Beachwalk force main, Tanimoto said that the project never got very far because the city was also planning to build a new Beachwalk wastewater pump station and was waiting to construct the new line until the new station site was determined.

The current Beachwalk station, tucked away behind Nike Town in Waikiki, is a valuable piece of real estate, he added, and “There was a lot of talk about selling this particular property and relocating the pump station. This was during the Harris administration so there was a lot of delay based on where are we going to put this pump station. We were going to put in on the Ala Wai golf course, but apparently the Ala Wai golf course is like the most heavily used golf course in the world so we couldn’t put it there. Push came to shove. We had a spill,” he said.

While Stoddard says she began reviewing the city’s force main plans soon after they were submitted, the Beachwalk force main broke before she could complete the review, the 48 million gallons were spilled, and the federal government basically took over her case.

“When I received the reports, I began to review them. Then I got involved in a DOT [Department of Transportation] consent decree… Then the Ala Wai spill happened and they said, ‘What do you mean, you didn’t send comments?’” Stoddard says, adding that she was told to “drop everything” and finish the comments for the county. (The Department of Transportation consent decree, which was not final until January 2006, involved the DOT’s failure to use best-management practices to prevent nonpoint source pollution.)

So on June 1, Stoddard finally returned comments to the city. In her paragraph-by-paragraph review of the city’s force main preventative maintenance plan, Stoddard states that the city merely describes activities which would be appropriate for the city’s force mains, “without stating that these activities are conducted on a regular basis, if at all. This falls short of the Order requirement to provide regularly scheduled preventative maintenance.”

She added that while the city claimed that its preventative maintenance program was very effective at preventing spills, the facts proved just the opposite: “In fact, the Order cited fifteen spills to state waters between November 1996 and March 2004, a little over seven years, and … there have been at least twelve spills from force mains to state waters in the two years since the order was issued, indicating that the city’s program is not very effective at preventing spills from force mains,” she wrote.

She also noted that the city’s force main contingency plan did not include the option of diverting flow to the nearest body of water, despite the fact that several force mains have bypass valves to divert flows to streams.

“In the case of the March 2006 Beachwalk force main wastewater diversion, the city used portable pumps to divert flow from manholes…to the Ala Wai Canal,” she wrote, and recommended that the city submit a flow chart that actually represented the city’s response to force main failures.

Although the Order requires the city to submit revised plans to the DOH within 30 days of receiving the DOH’s comments, on June 26, Eric Takamura, director of the city’s Department of Environmental Services, requested an extension, stating that submittal of the revised plan should coincide with the completion of the ongoing EPA negotiations.

That letter, according to Stoddard, is the last correspondence she’s received from the city regarding the 2004 force main NOV and Order.

“I have a letter to send to the city with a nice do-able schedule.… But because everything is in limbo, people above me said, ‘Sit on it,’” she says.

While all parties involved in this case have been tight-lipped about what the city will ultimately be required to do, Tanimoto described some of the city’s plans on September 7.

“We are currently looking at various plans to evaluate all of our force mains [and] we are now categorizing them as far as criticality,” he said. With regard to maintenance, he said the city is going to use a computer-based maintenance program.

“We already had that prior to the spill, but given the spill we are now more sensitized to this and the software becomes a more useful tool for us. We’re looking at using other types of monitoring equipment in the sewer system. Not necessarily during events of catastrophe, but every day, taking a closer look at our collection system, pump stations, as well as our treatment plants. This has been an eye-opener, to say the least.”

Tanimoto also explained that a lot of the infiltration of rainwater into the sewage system enters through cracks in pipes on private property and that “efforts are underway to smoke test lines to bring private landowners into compliance.”

And to lessen the amount of flow directed into the Beachwalk pump station, Tanimoto said, the city is looking to divert some of the flow to a sewer line under the Ala Wai to the Ala Moana pump station.

“There are steps underway to minimize flows to the [Beachwalk] pump station… Another pipe is being designed… In addition to a backup force main, we’re looking at reducing flow to the pump station…to a point where perhaps we could manage the flow should another event occur,” he said.

Teresa Dawson

— Volume 17, Number 5 November 2006

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