A plan to truck sewage sludge from Sand Island to Windward or Leeward Oahu has taken jabs from city and state politicians. But the city says its options are limited by budget cuts and environmental laws.

If trucking the waste to Kailua, Honouliuli or Waianae for processing is found to be either unfeasible or illegal, the list of choices gets shorter still.

Continuing to run the Sand Island digester at a higher rate than its designed capacity would amount to tempting the sludge gods. It could lead to environmental issues and potential fines and would leave the city ill-prepared in the case of an emergency, according to Department of Environmental Services Director Tim Steinberger.

Steinberger is also reluctant to bust out his nuclear option — an effective moratorium on all major development projects from Niu Valley to Halawa that he calls “a last resort.” But that possibility remains on the table, if only as an illustration of how dire the situation has become and how complacency isn’t acceptable.

“We have to figure out something to do if we’re not going to have that interim (solution) in place for another year and a half or two years, and we can’t just sit there and do nothing,” Steinberger said Wednesday.

The pressure, building for years, came to a head at last week’s meeting of the Honolulu City Council. The council unanimously passed a resolution instructing Steinberger’s department to investigate new technologies for processing wastewater and report back within 90 days.

This particular course of actions was set in motion in May and June, when the council removed a single wastewater project from Mayor Peter Carlisle‘s proposed capital budget. That $26 million item would have allowed the city to move forward with its plans to construct a second in-vessel bioconversion facility, known colloquially as an “egg.” The money would have also allowed the city to build an interim fix to lessen the load on the first digester for the two years it takes to construct the second egg.

In early June, Council member Romy Cachola sent a memo to his colleagues outlining his position against the second digester. Cachola’s district includes Sand Island, and he has long been a critic of both the existing chemical process for handling sewage sludge there and the company the city hired to do the work — Synagro.

Other council members deferred to the “the councilman of the district.” When Steinberger tried to warn council members about the consequences of cutting the funding, the office of then-Budget Committee Chair Ernie Martin — who has since ascended to chair of the full council — instructed Steinberger that if he couldn’t win over Cachola, there was no need to discuss the matter further.

Martin said Thursday he sat down with Synagro to talk about the status of the project and the need for a second digester. But while Cachola encouraged colleagues to yank the funds because he doesn’t want to continue working with Synagro on in-vessel bioconversion, Martin’s concerns were more about process than policy.

Martin said Synagro told him that the digester approached its capacity in 2008. But the urgency to construct a second egg wasn’t evident because the city didn’t move forward with preliminary work that had already been budgeted.

“That phase itself — the planning, design and permitting phase — would take 12 to 18 months, so they would have never reached the phase of doing construction during this fiscal year,” Martin said.

For his part, Steinberger told Civil Beat that the facility hit 100 percent in June 2010 and that the Council’s budget decision will set the administration back by six months or even a year.

Martin’s rationale is interesting because it sends the administration a mixed message. He deferred to Cachola because Sand Island falls in the latter’s district, but he doesn’t agree with Cachola’s gripe that moving forward on planning and design without construction money in the bank would presume a rubber stamp from the council.

“I believe we were correct in our actions,” Martin said. “The bottom line is that it was poor planning on the administration’s part. If they had moved forward (on planning and design), then I think the council would have taken a different posture in terms of funding the second digester.

“I think the council would be more receptive to funding what would be essentially the construction phase of the project.”

The earliest any new funding could come for the second egg would be a year from now. Both Steinberger and Martin acknowledge that the City Charter would prohibit supplemental funding this year because it would be tough to argue that the situation is unanticipated. After all, the funding was included in the original version of the budget.

So that leaves only the few options for the next year — at least.

The trucking option seems to be the administration’s preferred approach and could start within weeks, but it’s not without detractors. It would add a burden to the treatment plants in Kailua, Honouliuli and Waianae.

In his early June memo, Cachola speculated that the threat was designed to scare up support from the members representing those districts — Ikaika Anderson and Tom Berg.

“I am certain that should the mayor unwisely choose to dump raw sewage at these two wastewater treatment plants,” Cachola wrote, referencing Kailua and Waianae, “it would negatively impact his reelection bid.”

State Rep. Cynthia Thielen wrote letters to both the administration and the council criticizing the move and calling for an environmental assessment to review the impacts of trucking the sludge around the island. Steinberger said that because the practice will be temporary, it’s not subject to an environmental review.

While the city weighs Cachola’s political analysis, considers Thielen’s legal analysis and explores its short-term options, it’s also investigating more alternatives.

The council’s resolution calls for an exploration of more technologies. But it’s silent on whether those should be short- or long-term solutions; on whether they should supplant or supplement the Synagro system; and whether the council is willing to spend extra money to implement the technologies.

Steinberger said his team is at work to get answer to the council in the 90-day window laid out in the resolution. The conversation will continue soon, as Martin said he intends to hold an informational briefing as part of the Public Works Committee’s August meeting.

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