The city of Honolulu is seeking to pay a California law firm experienced in fighting environmental regulations $900,000 in an effort to avoid having to comply with stricter environmental controls at three sewage treatment plants on Oahu that discharge waste into the ocean.

The Honolulu City Council is expected to vote Wednesday on whether to approve the expense, which is much higher than a March projection by the city that pegged legal costs at $100,000.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Health issued new permit requirements for the city’s Kailua and Honouliuli wastewater treatment plants that put new restrictions on the release of pollutants, including nutrients and some cancer-causing chemicals, into the ocean. The health department is in the process of issuing similar requirements for the city’s Sand Island plant.

Synagro Honolulu Digester Sand Island Sewage (use this one)

Synagro Honolulu Digester at Sand Island

Courtesy Ron Slauson

The city’s Department of Environmental Services says that the conditions are onerous and expensive and do little to help the environment.

“DOH’s imposition of inappropriate or incorrect permit conditions may result in unnecessary costs to the city and its ratepayers in the form of fines and/or treatment facility upgrades,” according to the city’s proposed resolution seeking authorization for the funds.

Markus Owens, a spokesman for the city environmental services department, said that the city is also worried that the conditions may be applied to five other wastewater treatment facilities operated by the city. 

Earlier this year, the state health department eased restriction on some of the pollutants after the city complained that the rules would end up costing residents billions of dollars. Owens said that the city  is currently evaluating the costs to comply with the revised rules. 

The city is in the midst of contested cases before the state related to the Kailua and Honouliuli plants and is considering challenging the Sand Island permit as well. If the city loses, city officials have indicated that they will challenge the permits in court.

The city hopes to use the $900,000 to hire Edgcomb Law Group, an environmental law firm with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The city would pay the firm’s partners, Nancy Wilms and Tiffany Hedgpeth, $375 an hour, while associates would be paid $300 per hour and paralegals $140 a hour. 

Wilms has represented an agricultural chemical manufacturer against allegations that it contaminated drinking water supplies, investors affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and governments sued over Clean Water Act violations related to their wastewater plants, according to the law firm’s web site

Hedgpeth has represented clients in similar cases, including an oil company accused of illegal discharges and parties implicated in having responsibility for cleaning up a Superfund site. 

Councilman Ron Menor, who chairs the council’s Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee, told Civil Beat that the legal costs were high, but that the expectation is that it will be cheaper to pay the law firm than to comply with the new health department regulations. 

If the city ends up taking the case to court he said there would likely be little appetite among council members to cover additional legal costs.

“I think the council’s position is that the $900,000 is to cover all of the legal costs to get the matter resolved,” he said. “If the (corporation counsel) wants to obtain additional fees, I think it will be a hard sell with the council in the future.”

The Kailua contested case is scheduled to be heard in March of next year and the Honouliuli case is scheduled for June of 2015, according to Owens.

The city has a long history of fighting environmental regulations related to its wastewater treatment facilities, which dump more than 100 million gallons a day of treated sewage, agricultural and industrial wastewater off Oahu’s coasts. 

In 2004, environmental groups sued the city over its sewage collection and treatment system — a lawsuit that the state health department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later joined. 

Years of litigation culminated in a 2010 consent decree that required the city to spend about $3.5 billion to improve wastewater pipes and upgrade its Sand Island and Honouliuli wastewater treatment plants to “secondary treatment.”

The cost of the “secondary treatment” upgrades is pegged at $1.2 billion. 

A number of local scientists and engineers have said that the new permit requirements may require even more advanced treatment and have criticized the requirements as unnecessary and based on state water quality standards that weren’t meant to be applied to deep ocean depths. 

Alec Wong, head of the state health department’s clean water branch, said he couldn’t comment on the new wastewater permits because of the contested cases. He said that there are currently no plans to fine the city for non-compliance, which could amount to $25,000 a day. 

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