Back when the Honolulu City Council was pulling $26 million out of his capital projects budget, Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle warned they’d leave him only three lousy options for handling sewage sludge.

Wednesday, that list was down to two, and the mayor announced he would start hauling raw, untreated waste from Sand Island to Honouliuli starting next month — with the possibility of expanding the operation to Kailua and Waianae after a short test period.

At a news conference, Carlisle mocked the council members, saying they may have “put their foot in a bucket of … sludge.”

Now it looks like Carlisle may have stepped in it, too.

A discrepancy between Carlisle’s May 31 letter to the council and his presentation at Wednesday’s news conference allows council members to argue, credibly, that the administration failed to clearly communicate the options available if they didn’t give him the money he was seeking. It turns out that the mayor sent a misleading message during budget negotiations that may have understated the urgency of the challenge at Sand Island.

The Dispute Between Council and Administration

The dispute between the legislative and executive branches of Honolulu’s government has been over who’s at fault for leaving the city in its current mess.

The administration blamed the council, saying that removing the $26 million for a second egg-shaped digester undercut efforts to solve the problem of too much sludge at Sand Island. The council shot back that it would have taken two years to build the egg even if it were funded, and that the administration, because of poor planning, would still be in this same short-term mess.

But it turns out there was one project in the works that would have been funded from the $26 million and may have prevented the need to truck any untreated sludge. And that’s the project that Carlisle removed from his songbook since the budget battle.

On May 31, Carlisle sent a message to the council, urging it to put the $26 million back in the budget.

Read Carlisle’s May 31 letter to the council:

“Without the City Council introducing a FD-1 to reinstate the funds for the digester construction, my alternatives are very limited,” Carlisle wrote in his letter to then-Chair Nestor Garcia and members. “These alternatives may include trucking the excess influent raw sludge to Kailua Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant and Waianae Wastewater Treatment Plant, lime stabilization with disposal at Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill, and/or to immediately stop issuing sewage discharge permits.”

Options 1 and 3 are essentially the ones Carlisle outlined Wednesday. But Option 2 — “lime stabilization with disposal at Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill” — was nowhere to be found.

Lime Stabilization

It turns out that construction of the lime stabilization facility was going to be funded by the $26 million budget item generally associated with the second egg digester. That means it was never on the table as an alternative if the council refused to reinstate those funds.

Asked about the discrepancy between Carlisle’s May 31 letter and his statements at Wednesday’s press conference, spokesman Johnny Brannon explained that lime stabilization “was and remains a potential future alternative.” (emphasis in original)

“However, lime stabilization is not an immediate alternative. It would require an approved project, various permits, construction funding, and actual construction,” Brannon wrote in an email to Civil Beat Thursday afternoon. “In yesterday’s news conference, Mayor Carlisle addressed the immediate alternatives that remain: trucking sludge to the other treatment plants; or a moratorium on sewer connections.” (emphases in original)

After Carlisle’s press conference, City Council Vice Chair Ikaika Anderson said the idea of an interim solution — an example would be lime stabilization — was “never, ever explained to the council during any of the City Council meetings.”

If the message had gotten through and convinced the council to fund the second digester and/or the stabilization facility, it would have “provided far greater certainty regarding sludge treatment capacity and construction schedules,” Brannon said. “Since construction of the second digester and interim facility are now uncertain, trucking is far more likely and must be considered as an immediate contingency to protect public health and safety.”

But even if the council had reinstated the funding, the stabilization facility was still many months away.

A preliminary engineering schedule provided Thursday to Civil Beat by the city’s Department of Environmental Services shows that planning, permitting and design would have taken approximately six months from July 1, and construction would have lasted until the end of April 2012, even if the project had been funded.

Read the city’s engineering and permitting schedule for wastewater treatment work at Sand Island:

Environmental Services says the stabilization facility would have served two purposes: It would be an interim solution until the second egg is constructed, taking pressure off of the existing egg without the need for hauling untreated sludge. It would also serve as a backup facility even after the second egg is up and running, just in case one needs maintenance or has a problem.

“The hope would be that lime/chemical stabilization would address the entire volume” of excess sludge not handled by the existing egg digester, Environmental Services spokesman Markus Owens told Civil Beat in an email. “But we’re not certain at this time.”

Preliminary estimates for the cost of the facility were between $500,000 and $1 million, depending on its size, according to Owens. He said the annual cost for trucking the treated solids — which would have much less water weight and less offensive odor than untreated sludge — would also be dependent on the facility’s size and would be determined during the planning, permitting and design phase.

The solution isn’t without its drawbacks. Owens said even chemically stabilized sludge can have an odor. And in his May 31 letter, Carlisle downplayed the option, explaining that trucking the treated solids to the landfill would put the city’s goal of reducing reliance on the landfill as the management option for sludge in “jeopardy.”

But asked if lime stabilization would be preferable to trucking untreated sewage sludge to wastewater treatment plants at Honouliuli, Kailua and Waianae, Owens said simply: “Yes.”

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