After years of litigation over Honolulu’s sewer systems, the city is one step closer to finalizing a landmark settlement with a group of state and federal environmental agencies and nonprofits. The agreement would cost the city more than $1 billion, and would usher in a quarter-century of improvements to Honolulu’s sewers and sewage infrastructure.

Council members today voted without discussion to enter into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, Hawaii Department of Health, Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter, Our Children’s Earth Foundation and Hawaii’s Thousand Friends.

“Unfortunately, this is something that we have to do because it’s something that got deferred in years past,” said City Council Chairman Todd Apo after the decision. “We recognized that we are going to be under a number of federal mandates. We have a lawsuit that’s cost us a lot in legal fees. So to get to a point that allows the city a significant amount of time to do all the fixes we need to do so that a large burden isn’t placed on taxpayers, I think, is a win-win.”

The council’s approval was expected — the mayor’s office announced late last month a consent decree had been reached, and would be on the agenda for today’s meeting. But it represents a significant step after more than a decade and a half of debate over Honolulu’s aging sewer infrastructure and its handling of sewage.

In 2004, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit alleging system-wide deficiencies. Ben Lee, then the city’s managing director, responded that the litigation was “absolutely unnecessary,” and “a waste of taxpayer dollars.” Two years later, a pipe ruptured and spewed nearly 50 million gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal, posing public health threats and closing Waikiki beaches in the worst recorded raw-sewage spill in state history.

Among the first and most significant actions the city would take under the agreement is an overhaul to the city’s collection system: sewers, force mains, pumps and pipes like the one that caused the 2006 spill.

“Our 2004 lawsuit principally involved the fact that our pipes, our delivery system, is archaic and falling apart, and several of the force mains are at the end of their life, capacity and expectation,” said Robert Harris, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii Chapter. “Our suit was intended to really have the city commit to a schedule of systematic improvements to ensure that the amount of spills we have are reduced.”

Harris notes that the city has already taken significant steps toward fixing sewage infrastructure under the Hannemann administration, dramatically reducing sewage spills.

“When we filed our suit in 2004, there were 150 sewage spills per year,” said Harris. “Now we’re down somewhere in the 40 or 50 range.”

The agreement goes far beyond reducing the inevitable failures of aging infrastructure. It would also require:

  • The repair or replacement of 144 miles of gravity sewers in 10 years, including at least 63 miles in the first three years.
  • The construction of back-up force mains
  • Updated flow projections, including during rainy weather
  • The development of standardized training at pump stations
  • The creation of site-specific contingency plans for potential spills
  • Improved maintenance and oversight across the board

In assessing the need for repair and replacement, the agreement would require the city to dispatch closed-circuit cameras through some 650 miles of sewers, surveying at least 300 miles in the first three years of compliance.

The consent decree also aims to reach an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency, which after years of waiving wastewater treatment regulations for Hawaii’s system, last year demanded the state conform with federal standards.

Those standards, first developed under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972, required all municipal sewage to go through secondary treatment by 1977. Honolulu was among coastal cities that long qualified for a waiver from secondary treatment on the grounds that “marine [sewage-treatment facilities] usually discharge into deeper waters with large tides and substantial currents, which allow for greater dilution and dispersion than their freshwater counterparts,” the act reads.

“We had always gone along with the fact that EPA had granted us this waiver,” said Apo. “Those waivers are slowly going away, but if you look back in the past it made sense. It was a better scientific solution; it was cheaper.”

Apo’s reference to a “scientific solution” was the focus of the only public testimony offered before today’s vote. A longtime environmental advisor to the city, Hans Krock, reiterated his argument that secondary treatment would actually do more harm than good.

“The requirement for secondary treatment, especially at Sand Island, would not only not do any good to the environment but it would in fact be harmful,” Krock said. “It will have no beneficial environmental effects, no beneficial effect in the ocean, and will be detrimental in the sense that it will increase the carbon emissions to the atmosphere equivalent to adding 10,000 cars to the highways of Hawaii and will in fact use significant amounts of energy on a continuous basis.”

The Sierra Club’s Harris says while his first and foremost concern is with regard to pipe repairs, he’s pleased to see the city move toward adopting secondary treatment. The agreement approved by the City Council gives the city until at least 2035 to meet those standards.

“The amount of time, we’re not thrilled with,” said Harris. “We really do hope the city will look at this as the external date, and there’s nothing stopping us from getting it done sooner.”

City officials say what’s stopping them, or at least slowing them down, is what’s been an issue all along: funding. A study released yesterday projects Hawaii is pouring more than $14 billion of federal, state and county monies into infrastructure statewide in the next six years alone. That doesn’t include any of the more than $1 billion the city would spend on sewers in the next 25 years under the consent decree.

But the timeline may be key. City Council members say taxpayers will see sewer fees go up, but at a manageable rate over the next two decades. It’s an approach they say could have helped prevent sewage infrastructure dilapidating to this point.

“Why weren’t rates increased on a regular basis?” asked Apo. “Why wasn’t regular maintenance done? That could have prevented us from getting into this bad situation, and situations like the spill in 2006.”

The consent decree, which is still considered a “draft,” in its publicly available form, doesn’t explicitly state how much it will cost Honolulu. Since the EPA refused the city’s application for a wastewater-treatment waiver, officials have said it would cost them $1 billion to build the necessary facilities. In 2008, Mayor Mufi Hannemann called that a “huge financial burden” on taxpayers. At Honolulu Hale after the council’s approval of the settlement, the mayor’s spokesman said Hannemann would be ready to speak to the council’s approval of the agreement on Thursday. Meantime, council members say they expect the relatively long timeframe for compliance to lessen the financial blow.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” said Donovan Dela Cruz, a council member and mayoral candidate. “But ultimately it will be good for the city.”

City Council members are also looking for ways to direct more funding into the sewage fund. For example, the council voted to amend another resolution that diverted more than $11,700 from the general fund to the sewage fund.

“For the average taxpayer, $11,000 is a lot of money,” said City Council member Ann Kobayashi. “Our sewer fees have gone up so high, over $100 dollars, so every amount of money we could put into the sewer fund would certainly help.”

Council member Romy Cachola acknowledged that the handling of that $11,700 — roughly one-100,000th of the $1.2 billion price tag the city faces — is, more than anything, a nod to taxpayers about the burden to come.

“It’s symbolic,” Cachola said. “A little bit here and there is a good signal for taxpayers to know that this council is looking for ways to ease their pain.”

Discussion Is the consent decree an appropriate step forward for Honolulu’s handling of its sewage? Share your thoughts about this issue.

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