The City and County of Honolulu is responsible for many of Oahu residents’ infrastructure needs: roads, sewers, water and waste. Residents and businesses pay for most of these services through property taxes, but assorted fees and taxes are also used to provide specific services. For example, residents pay sewer fees to maintain the city wastewater system. The annual vehicle registration fee includes taxes to help pay for maintenance of city roads. The city also operates and maintains parks, municipal golf courses and performance spaces.
Many Honolulu drivers commuting from the suburbs start their mornings with glorious views and horrendous traffic. On rainy days, traffic can slow to a crawl — even with no accidents — and a particularly heavy downpour can leave city streets pocked with potholes.
While a $10 billion proposal to build a 20-mile elevated Honolulu Rail Project from Kapolei to Ala Moana is the highest profile effort to alleviate traffic congestion on Oahu, more immediate steps are being taken. The state has opened the Kapolei and Kualakai parkways to give Leeward Oahu residents alternative ways to get between Kapolei, Ewa and the H-1 Freeway.
Sewage and Wastewater
After Honolulu had several hundred sewage spills and other Clean Water Act violations in the early 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Hawaii Department of Health reached a settlement in 1994. The city was required to make substantial improvements to its sewage collection and wastewater pretreatment program over the next 20 years. In addition to the improvements to its 1,900 miles of sewer lines, the consent decree requires the city to develop programs to recycle and reuse treated wastewater and sludge. The EPA also fined the city $1.2 million.
In 2004, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the city alleging more than 14,000 violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Environmentalists argued the city’s sewer system was archaic, dilapidated and dangerous. The suit came after a decade of mayoral leadership under former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, who was criticized for diverting more than $100 million from the city’s sewer funds to pay for city projects not related to the sewer system.
Under his successor, Hannemann, the city ramped up efforts to improve sewer infrastructure and meet the federal requirements. Sewer fees have almost doubled since 2005, and will increase more to help pay for the billions of dollars the city plans to invest in sewer and wastewater improvements in the coming decades. The need for improvements gained international attention in 2006 when a ruptured sewer line spilled 48 million gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal, forcing closures of Waikiki and Ala Moana beaches. Environmental groups have applauded the Hannemann administration, saying the city cut down number of sewage spills from about 150 per year to around 50 per year in a five-year period.
Even after the city’s settlement with the EPA in the 1990s, Honolulu remained one of dozens of coastal cities who applied for waivers from some federal wastewater-treatment standards. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972 required all sewage-treatment centers, known as Publicly Owned Treatment Works, to process its sewage through secondary treatment by 1977. Honolulu argued its disposal of sewage into deep-ocean waters meant secondary treatment was unnecessary. The city was long granted a waiver on the grounds that “marine POTWs usually discharge into deeper waters with large tides and substantial currents, which allow for greater dilution and dispersion than their freshwater counterparts,” as stipulated in amendments to section 301(h) of the federal Clean Water Act.
In 2007, the EPA denied Honolulu’s request for waivers, saying sewage discharged into the ocean posed threats to marine life and humans eating fish. The city appealed the EPA’s decision, and Hannemann blasted the agency as “unreasonable,” and its call for Honolulu to comply with federal standards as “unnecessary.” He said the move would place “a huge financial burden” on taxpayers.
In June 2010, Hannemann announced a proposed settlement between the city and several federal and local agencies and nonprofits — the EPA, the Hawaii Department of Health, Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter, Our Children’s Earth Foundation and Hawaii’s Thousand Friends — to overhaul the city’s sewer system and its management.
On July 14, 2010, the City Council approved the settlement, sending it back to federal court in advance of a required public-commenting period. If finalized, the settlement would require more the $1 billion in upgrades and construction related to Honolulu’s sewer systems.
The settlement entails hundreds of miles of assessment and repairs to Honolulu’s pipes in the next decade. It would also require the construction of secondary wastewater-treatment capabilities at the Honouliuli and Sand Island plant locations. The agreement gives Honolulu until 2024 to meet secondary-treatment standards at the Honouliuli plant, and until at least 2035 for Sand Island upgrades.
Secondary-treatment requirements remain controversial in Honolulu. Some local scientists argue secondary treatment is harmful, and that waste deposited into the ocean should be chemically treated just once. Some environmentalists argue the carbon footprint associated with building and running secondary-treatment plants would be detrimental. Local Sierra Club representatives say though secondary-treatment was not a component in their 2004 lawsuit, but say they support the EPA’s calls for secondary treatment in Honolulu.
Oahu generates about 1.8 million tons of trash a year, more than can be contained by the island’s two landfills. One, the PVT landfill in Nanakuli, owned by PVT Land Company Ltd., is used exclusively for construction and demolition waste. The other, Waimanalo Gulch Landfill in Waianae, needs to be expanded if it is to continue serving as the city’s primary landfill. While the city is pursuing approval to expand Waimanalo Gulch beyond the three years approved by the Public Utilities Commission in fall 2009, it is also trying to divert waste by expanding its H-Power waste-to-energy plant and encouraging curbside recycling.
About 900,000 tons of trash, equal to using 15 milion barrels of oil, is processed at the H-Power facility at Campbell Industrial Park in Kapolei each year. Also a third boiler was added to the plant to process another 300,000 tons of waste — enough to supply 6 percent of the island’s electricity. The $302 million project was completed in 2012.
The city also implemented its curbside recycling, that dropped trash collection to once a week with a second pickup for green waste or mixed recycling.
About half of Oahu households have municipal refuse service.
Municipal water service is provided by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, a semi-autonomous agency governed by a seven member board. Five members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council. The other two are appointed by the director of the state Department of Transportation and the chief engineer of the Department of Facility Maintenance.
The Board of Water Supply maintains Oahu’s drinking water resources and distribution system. The water system includes 2,000 miles of aging pipeline across the island, which makes water main breaks inevitable. The board has been working to reduce emergency breaks by detecting leaks and repairing them before they break, working on corrosion control methods to extend the life of the water lines and planning water main replacements.
The board also collects sewer fees, which will almost double in the same time frame. Both clean water and sewer fees are included on the same bill from the Board of Water Supply, although sewers are maintained by the city Department of Environmental Services.