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When Lisa Kennedy paddled out with friends to the popular surf spot, Kaisers, off Waikiki in 2006, she had no idea that just a short distance away the city had been dumping massive amounts of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal.
The two-mile waterway that runs along Kapiolani Boulevard through one of the busiest stretches of Honolulu empties directly into the ocean at the western end of Waikiki’s world famous beaches, less than a mile from Kennedy’s surf spot.
Kennedy took a spill on her surfboard that day, cutting her buttocks on the coral. The wound became severely infected with five different strains of bacteria, four of which were tied to fecal matter, tests showed.
Kennedy spent 14 days in the hospital and needed five months of treatment for the infections, according to her attorney, Richard Fried.
She sued the city, and in 2008 was awarded nearly $200,000.
In that 2006 incident, the city dumped enough sewage to fill 36,000 dump trucks. It flowed through the canal out past the Ala Wai Boat Harbor and into the waters off Waikiki Beach, including some of Oahu’s most popular surf spots.
But city officials didn’t warn beachgoers that the water exceeded safe water quality standards until the last day of the six-day sewage dump, according to Fried.
And they didn’t close the beaches until the day after the dump.
It’s unclear now why the city didn’t move more quickly to warn the public of a possible health risk or close the beaches. Former Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who ordered the dump, didn’t return phone calls for this series and other key environmental officials from his administration couldn’t be located.
But critics say government officials have long been loathe to call attention to the effect pollution from the Ala Wai Canal may be having on Waikiki’s valued beaches.
“How bad would it be for tourism if we admitted this?” said Karen Ah Mai, head of the Ala Wai Watershed Association.
Waikiki, the state’s major economic engine, attracts more than 4 million visitors annually and in 2011 brought in $10.6 billion, or 6.5 percent of the state’s gross state product, according to state data.
The decision to dump the raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal was a clear violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
But at the time, Hannemann and top officials said it was the only option after a major sewage pipe broke in Waikiki, spewing waste onto Kaiolu Street. The sewage would back up into basements, hotel rooms, businesses and homes, and flow out onto the streets and beaches of Waikiki if it wasn’t diverted, they warned.
Eric Takamura, director of the the city’s environmental services department at the time, defended the city’s actions in commentary published in the Honolulu Advertiser about a week after the dump.
“As it turns out, the storm water runoff fed into the canal throughout that week helped dilute the wastewater and propel it out to sea,” wrote Takamura. “Throughout our monitoring, the drogues would consistently head away from shore toward deeper water, never once indicating any circulation back towards Waikiki.”
Civil Beat asked the city and state for test results from the canal going back over the decades. But the state said it hadn’t done tests since 1999.
City officials said they also didn’t have any data but then a state environmental official mentioned during an interview that he had been getting regular updates on water quality tests from the city via email.
The city finally gave Civil Beat hundreds of test results for bacteria levels over the past six years.
But data from four of the six days during the 2006 sewage dump was missing. About 99 percent of the sewage was dumped during those four days. A city spokesman said the lack of data was due to a hard drive failure.
But Fried, Kennedy’s attorney, had earlier obtained the information through a subpoena. He provided it to Civil Beat.
The tests show the levels of bacteria began exceeding the safe limit along Waikiki beaches shortly after the city started dumping the sewage in the canal. This includes waters fronting some of the state’s most famous hotels — the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Hale Koa Hotel, Halekulani-Sheraton and Moana Hotel.
Kennedy paddled out from the Hilton Hawaiian Village five days into the sewage dump. She and her friends rented surfboards from the concession stand in front of the hotel. At the time, the level of bacteria in the Hilton Lagoon was nine times the safe limit, according to city data provided by Fried. The day before, the water had tested at 50 times the safe limit.
“It shows the amazing buildup that was totally ignored and not notified to the citizens of Honolulu,” said Fried.
For years, government officials have argued that the pollution from the canal doesn’t impact Waikiki beaches because currents carry it straight out to sea or in a leeward direction.
Several days into the 2006 dump, Hannemann reassured the public that Waikiki beaches were safe because the current was taking the flow of the canal in the opposite direction, toward the airport, according to a Honolulu Advertiser story published on day five of the spill.
But Richard Grigg, a University of Hawaii oceanographer, told Civil Beat that currents also carry the water from the canal toward Waikiki beaches, as evidenced in Kennedy’s case.
“When the tide is falling, it goes to Kewalo Basin,” he said. “When the tide is rising it goes toward Waikiki.”
But Grigg, who was a witness for Kennedy in her lawsuit, said that most of the time the water from the canal doesn’t pose a health problem and that salt water does a good job of killing bacteria.
And state health officials point out that tests for bacteria levels in offshore waters show that Waikiki beaches test below safe limits the majority of the time.
Still, David Henkin, an attorney for Honolulu-based Earthjustice, said that government officials needed to step up efforts to clean up the canal, “whether for the environment or the economy.”
“Our tourist-based economy relies on people wanting to come here and go in the water,” Henkin said.
But city and state officials aren’t forced to acknowledge a potential problem in the water.
“Most people, by the time they get sick, they are back home and they don’t really associate it with Hawaii,” said Henkin.