Oliver Johnson, a 34-year old mortgage broker and surfer from Honolulu lay in Queen’s Medical Center, his body swollen beyond recognition, blisters covering his skin and his left leg amputated above the knee.
A few days earlier, he’d gotten into a bar fight near the Ala Wai Boat Harbor and was either pushed or fell into the dark waters of the harbor.
Unfortunately for Johnson, city officials had just finished diverting 48 million gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal after a pipe broke in Waikiki, spewing waste onto the streets of the state’s main business and tourism center.
Johnson was dead within days. He’d contracted three bacterial infections, including the flesh-eating kind, that spread throughout his body and cost him a leg.
His gruesome death in 2006 is perhaps the most public symbol of pollution in the Ala Wai Canal.
But even now canoe paddlers regularly complain of infections and residents recoil from the smelly brown water where tires, plastic food wrappers and beer bottles float in the near stagnant canal.
The canal is the most heavily used inland waterway in the state for recreation but it regularly fails state water standards for recreational bodies of water.
Yet there is little political or public interest in banning recreational activities. Even the paddlers themselves say they’d rather put up with oozing sores and itchy scabs then lose their broad, smooth waterway where hundreds compete in popular races.
Civil Beat had samples of Ala Wai fish and crab independently tested. Results showed excessive levels of the kind of bacteria that causes food poisoning, along with detectable levels of heavy metals, including arsenic, lead and mercury.
But the true extent of the public health threat remains as murky as the waters of the Ala Wai.
Canal contamination has been studied since the 1970s. And over the years, tests have shown cancer-causing chemicals in soil sediment, high levels of heavy metals in fish and crabs, and bacteria levels many times the limit considered safe for recreational use.
But state officials haven’t regularly monitored contaminants in the canal since 1999, according to the Hawaii Department of Health, which is responsible for enforcing the federal Clean Water Act that sets standards and limits on contaminants.
The department had been testing the canal as part of its program to monitor and improve Hawaii’s inland waters. But in 2000, Congress passed the BEACH Act which established strict testing and public notification requirements for coastal waters.
That shifted the state’s focus away from inland waters to the coasts, said Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health.
Although the state, which owns the Ala Wai and manages it through the Department of Land and Natural Resources, could have continued to monitor the canal on its own, it didn’t.
Watson Okubo, who supervises water monitoring in the health department’s clean water branch, says he hasn’t had the money or the manpower to test Hawaii waterways, including the Ala Wai Canal, for many years. Budget cuts in 2010 further reduced his monitoring staff on Oahu, from five to one, he said.
Even though the state hasn’t conducted its own monitoring, the city has been required to test for enterococci levels in the canal since 2006 to make sure that an emergency sewage pipe isn’t leaking. Enterococci — a bacteria, commonly found in human and animal guts — is the EPA’s main indicator for detecting fecal matter and potentially high levels of pathogens that can cause skin infections, disease and gastrointestinal illnesses.
The massive six-day sewage dump in 2006 that claimed the life of Oliver Johnson caused the level of enterococci bacteria to spike to more than 4,000 times the safe limit established by the EPA. Offshore, bacteria levels also rose during the 2006 dump, sickening at least one woman who won a major settlement from the city.
A Civil Beat review of city data from 2006 through April 2013 shows that the canal has for most of that time far exceeded the state’s safe level for enterococci.
Points near Kaiolu Street, the Date Street Bridge, the McCully Bridge and Waikiki Yacht Club at times tested nearly 1,000 times higher than the level considered safe. The enterococci counts were so high at times that they exceeded even the levels detected during the early days of the 2006 sewage dump.
Since 2006, there have also been at least six additional raw sewage spills in the Ala Wai Canal, according to city data.
And while there is no data since the 1990s because no tests have been done, the Ala Wai Canal also tested positive for pesticides and heavy metals linked to cancer, birth defects and damage to the nervous system. This includes dieldrin, chlordane and DDT, insecticides now banned by the EPA. Heavy metals detected in the canal in the past include arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, zinc, nickel and chromium.
“I can honestly say that I think the pollution continues,” says the health department’s Okubo. “Whether it’s better or worse (over the years), that is debatable.”
Fifteen years ago, the Ala Wai Canal was the focus of much environmental and regulatory scrutiny.
In 1998, a task force comprised of 250 people, including elected officials, community groups and government agencies issued a report outlining strategies to clean up the canal. The panel recommended that the waterway be tested regularly to see if the state was meeting its goals.
The mission of the task force, which grew out of a slew of litigation against the city for violations of the Clean Water Act, was to help clean up the canal.
The panel suggested re-vegetating stream banks and finding ways to better flush the canal. The task force encouraged public outreach campaigns to educate people about the use of fertilizers and to pick up trash that routinely flows into streams that run down into the canal.
The task force also recommended that the state test the fish and crabs in the canal for contaminants every five years to see if water quality goals were being met.
The “incidence of contaminated fish is a parameter which indicates the level of public health risk,” according to the report.
But the state health department doesn’t test the fish and crabs, either. Similar to water quality testing, the agency hasn’t tested the fish and crabs since 1997. And again, state officials blame a lack of money for the shortcoming.
Some parts of the Ala Wai Canal and boat harbor are so oxygen starved that schools of tilapia, an aggressive, hardy fish from Africa introduced to Hawaii in the 1950s, gulp for air at the water’s surface. The fish are trying to tap surface water where oxygen levels are higher, says Kevin Hopkins, director of the Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Scientific studies by the UH have tied the lack of oxygen in the canal to decaying sediment and excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.
High levels of the nutrients not only deplete oxygen levels, but make the water murky. They cause algae blooms, can kill fish and create toxins and bacteria that make people sick, according to information from the EPA.
Both are naturally occurring in the environment, but major runoff from upland streams, as well as fertilizers and automobile exhaust, lead to toxic levels of the nutrients.
The state health department set out to combat the nitrogen and phosphorous problem in the Ala Wai Canal back in 1995, establishing a plan to reduce the pollutants, as required under the 1972 Clean Water Act.
As of 2002, the state was required to reduce the canal’s nitrogen content by 65 percent and its phosphorous content by 50 percent in order to meet water quality standards.
But the state hasn’t tested for phosphorous or nitrogen since establishing the reduction plan, so there’s no way of knowing whether that requirement is being met.
Prior to the canal’s construction in the 1920s, extensive wetlands naturally cleansed the fresh water descending from streams in the Manoa, Palolo and Makiki valleys before it washed into the ocean off of Waikiki.
The canal destroyed this natural filtration system. And as urban growth exploded in the mid-20th century, the canal became a catch basin for all the pollution and trash from the the ridges and valleys that form the Ala Wai Watershed area.
[VIDEO] Part Two: Building The Ala Wai Included Design Flaw
Even before the canal was finished in 1928 engineers realized the design was seriously flawed. The eastern outlet was never built because they didn’t want pollution being swept west past Waikiki Beach. The semi-closed system means the canal doesn’t regularly flush, so contaminants build up in the sediment and the water.
In 1929, Oahu had a population of about 200,000. Today, it’s nearly 1 million. Tens of thousands of cars and trucks travel through the Ala Wai watershed area daily, leaving behind heavy metals and chemicals that are washed into storm drains and into the canal when it rains.
Rain also flushes pesticides, pathogens, dead animals, debris and sewage into storm drains and streams leading into the canal. While the city is primarily responsible for keeping the streams clean, the situation is complicated by hundreds of property owners who own parts of the streams.
In 1998, the task force estimated that 1,500 truckloads of sediment a year were being washed into the canal — a rate that would turn the canal into a mass of muck in about 50 years if not dredged, the panel predicted.
Cleaning that contaminated sediment out the canal is an expensive proposition. So far, cleanup has been largely through dredging, with tons of contaminated sediments dumped offshore.
Still, the canal has only been partially dredged three times in its history — in 1967, 1978 and 2002.
The 1998 task force said it needed to be dredged every 10 years — a cost the group estimated to be $10 million each time.
But there are no current plans to dredge the canal again, according to Carty Chang, chief engineer at Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, which owns the canal and manages it.
Chang said that the department is waiting to see if dredging is part of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal that is expected to recommend ways to redesign the canal to prevent flooding.
Federal law prohibits the flow of high levels of contaminants into the Ala Wai. But since most of it is simply runoff, it’s coming from sources that are hard to pin down let alone regulate.
“When you are talking about thousands of individual property owners who are contributing to the overall degradation of the canal, who do you want me to fine?” said the health department’s Gill.
Environmental activists argue the state could be doing more to control runoff, even from residential property.
“The state of Hawaii has done a horrible, horrible job in gaining control of nonpoint source pollution that is damaging our waterways and hurting our economy,” said David Henkin, an attorney for Honolulu-based Earthjustice.
In this year’s legislative session, Gill pushed for a bill that would have expanded the health department’s authority to combat runoff, including sewage from residential cesspools that is suspected of flowing into waterways when it rains.
But the bill died. Broader requirements in the legislation affected more than just homeowners’ cesspools. Agricultural and industrial interests also would have been required to control runoff from their properties, some of which flows into the Ala Wai. Major businesses and developers lobbied against the measure, including Alexander & Baldwin, the General Contractors Association of Hawaii and the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.
The contractors association argued that the bill would increase costs and unnecessarily burden the construction industry, while the Hawaii Farm Bureau said it would add a “costly bureaucratic hurdle” to local food production.
So the Ala Wai will continue to build up with sediment, chemicals and other contaminants — at least for now.
“The Legislature dealt a huge blow to water quality improvement in the state,” Gill said.
Coming Wednesday: Should people still use the canal?