More than a year after a major settlement between the Environmental Protection Agency and the city of Honolulu to address the thousands of gallons of raw sewage that flow into Oahu’s waterways annually, the volume of spills has not abated.

The amount spilled in 2010 – the year that the consent decree was signed — and in 2011 is about equal. But it’s markedly higher than it was in 2007 through 2009. In fact, the amount spilled in 2011 is 80 times higher than in 2009.

Civil Beat analyzed six years of data provided by the city’s Department of Environmental Services.

Asked why the sharp increase, when the amount being spilled is supposed to be decreasing, Markus Owens, a spokesman for the environmental services department, said that the problem is because larger pipes, called force mains, are breaking.

“Normal spills involve pipes that are six to eight inches (in diameter), so the volume you are carrying is much less,” he said. “On the force mains, you are getting an entire community coming through that pump station.”

But he said it’s not clear why there have been more breaks in the force mains. The city is required to monitor and upgrade these pipes as part of the settlement agreement, but it could take another 10 years before the system is fixed.

Ken Greenberg, who manages compliance with federal clean water laws for EPA’s Region 9, which includes Hawaii, said that the federal agency is aware of the situation.

“That absolutely concerns us,” he said, noting that heavy rains were contributing to the problems. Still, he said the city is in compliance with the terms of the agreement that outline system upgrades.

Contact with untreated sewage poses a host of well-documented health risks.

“The primary concern is pathogens,” said Greenberg.

Sewage can contain viruses and bacteria that can make people sick upon contact. Open cuts or wounds increase the risk of infections and ingesting the water can cause gastrointestinal problems. It can also kill marine life and pollute food sources.

While rare in the United States and Hawaii, one of the greatest health risks from untreated sewage is cholera, an intestinal disease that can lead to death.

While the amount of sewage being spilled has gone up, Owens noted that the number of spills had “decreased dramatically” due to city improvements.

In 2011, the number of spills was at its lowest point in six years — 96 spills, half of the number in 2010. This data refers to the total number of spills, including those not entering bodies of water.

A History of Unfulfilled Promises

Sewage leaks have persisted for decades as the city has struggled to deal with Oahu’s aging sewage system.

In the past six years alone, more than 52 million gallons of sewage and storm water — enough to fill 80 Olympic-sized swimming pools — has washed into streams, canals and coastal waters.

The majority of it is from a 2006 incident, in which about 48 million gallons of untreated sewage was dumped into the Ala Wai Canal after heavy rains overwhelmed wastewater systems. Faced with having sewage back up into hotels and homes, then Mayor Mufi Hannemann made the decision to dump it in the canal. It ended up overflowing from the Ala Wai, causing temporary beach closures due to health concerns. Shortly after the spill, a local resident, Oliver Johnson, fell into the canal and reportedly died of a massive bacterial infection.

After years of lawsuits and frustration from environmental groups, the city entered into a settlement with the EPA, Hawaii Department of Health, Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter, Our Children’s Earth Foundation and Hawaii’s Thousand Friends. The 2010 consent decree was widely hailed by its supporters as a watershed moment in forcing the city to finally fix the sewer problem.

But pressure from the EPA is not new, and records show that enforcement by EPA has had little effect on preventing spills.

In 1995, the city of Honolulu entered into a settlement with the EPA to upgrade its system, but then failed to fully comply with the order, according to documents from the U.S. Justice Department. And despite hundreds of spills that continued during the next 15 years, the EPA didn’t levy fines against the city until the second consent decree in 2010.

But then, in 2010 as part of the consent decree, the city was ordered to pay $1.5 million that covered the Ala Wai spill and incidents from the prior 15 years. But the penalties were small compared to what the city could have been fined. Between the years 2006 and 2011 alone, the city could have faced fines of at least $4.5 million for more than 100 spills that entered waterways.

EPA Says Enforcement Now Stricter

Every time sewage enters a waterway it’s a violation of the 1972 Clean Water Act, landmark environmental legislation that in part sought to force the nation to upgrade its aging sewer systems which were being overwhelmed by increases in population and rainwater runoff.

Critics have attacked the EPA in recent years for failing to crack down on violations. And an extensive investigative series published by the New York Times between 2009 and 2010, revealed that the EPA failed to levy penalties for hundreds of thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act.

But the EPA’s Greenberg said that since 2005, sewage spills in particular were one of the EPA’s top priorities. In addition to the settlement with Honolulu, the agency has entered into similar settlements in the western region with Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

While the EPA was frustrated at Honolulu’s slow progress following the 1995 consent decree, he said he expected the 2010 agreement to be more effective.

“This decree has many more specific requirements and deadlines than the 1995 decree,” said Greenberg. “We’re not happy that there was not more progress made since 1995.”

While recent spills have continued and the EPA has not imposed fines, Greenberg said that the decree makes it easier for the agency to penalize the city if it isn’t meeting requirements.

The decree stipulates that the city can be fined $4,000 to $10,000 if a spill exceeding 750 gallons is related to the city’s failure to perform specified force main or gravity sewer work, or the city fails to adequately respond to it. While this is less than the maximum amount, as laid out in the Clean Water Act, Greenberg said that specifying the fines in the court settlement makes it easier to enforce. The city is still vulnerable to the maximum federal fine of $30,500 per day for any untreated sewage entering a body of water.

The city has also said that it’s committed to compliance and making the hefty investments — estimated at $4.6 billion dollars — to complete all of the upgrades. Owens said the city has designated about $300 million in the 2013 fiscal budget for work on the collection system, which is expected to be completed by 2020.

While he said that a funding plan for the next 10 years “has not been ironed out yet,” he anticipated the funding level to remain in that range in the coming years. Consumer sewer rates will also likely go up 3 percent to 5 percent in order to help pay for the work.

Watch Where You Swim

Meanwhile, officials expect that spills will continue throughout Oahu, especially when it rains.

Civil Beat crunched the numbers to figure out where the sewage has been going.

During the past six years, about 40 bodies of water have been polluted with raw sewage.

Some of the worst spills are around Kaneohe and Kailua.

During the past six years, 19 spills have dumped about 600,000 gallons of sewage and storm water into Kaneohe Bay and Kaneohe Stream, which flows into the bay.

At Kaelepulu Stream there have have been 16 spills that have sent 330,00 gallons into the waterway, which exits into Kailua Beach.

An overwhelmed pumping station with a gravity tunnel has been contributing to those spills, and Owens said $140 million has been earmarked in the budget to help with the problem. The work is expected to be completed by 2018.

After the Ala Wai canal, Pearl Harbor has absorbed the most sewage pollution — more than a million gallons.

Here’s the breakdown:

This chart shows the amount of sewage, mixed with an unknown percentage of storm water, that has entered waterways during the past six years:

The following data, provided by the city Department of Environmental Services, shows the number of spills that have occurred on Oahu since 2006. Smaller spills are not included in the data. It also breaks down the spills that are recorded to have entered waterways, which are violations of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

About the Author