The Hawaii Department of Health was hoping that outgoing Gov. Neil Abercrombie would sign new rules into law before he left office Monday that would help phase out thousands of cesspools throughout the islands that could be contaminating coastal waters with raw sewage.

The proposed rules would ban new cesspools and require property owners to convert cesspools to septic tanks within a year of a home or building being sold.

But the governor did not act on the rules, a department official confirmed Monday.

They now go to the desk of the new governor, David Ige. That, said Sina Pruder, chief of the state health department’s wastewater branch, could delay or derail implementation of the regulations that the department has been working on for more than a year.

Signs warning the public to keep out of water near Kahaluu lagoon.  24 nov 2014. photo Cory Lum

Signs warn the public to keep out of the water at Kahaluu lagoon.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A spokeswoman for Ige indicated over the weekend that the issue is not likely to be addressed immediately.

Hawaii’s cesspool problem has gained increased urgency with recent health department findings that Kahaluu Lagoon leading into Kaneohe Bay is contaminated with bacteria associated with human sewage. Bacteria levels in some areas around the lagoon have registered as high as levels detected in the Ala Wai Canal in 2006, after city officials dumped 48 million gallons of raw sewage into the waterway because a pipe burst in Waikiki. 

Hawaii has the distinction of having more cesspools than any other state — about 90,000 throughout the islands.

Health officials suspect that close to 700 cesspools in the Kahaluu watershed, which isn’t hooked up to the city sewage system, could be causing the pollution.

The health department has posted signs warning people to stay out of the water, while health officials continue to investigate the source of the pollution.

“It has huge implications if we discover that Kahaluu’s high bacteria counts” are due to cesspools, said Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health for the state health department. “The question is what other areas have the same kind of water quality.”

Over the years, the health department has been particularly concerned about the impact that cesspools are having in Waimanalo Beach Lots, Hanalei Bay on Kauai — where cesspools are located along the river that feeds into the ocean — and Kapoho on the Big Island, said Gill.

Essentially holes in the ground that discharge raw, untreated human waste, cesspools have been phased out in many states throughout the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hawaii has continued to permit the systems and has the distinction of having more cesspools than any other state — about 90,000 throughout the islands. More than half of the systems are located on the Big Island.

Health officials say that the untreated sewage poses a risk to drinking water aquifers, freshwater streams and coastal waters, threatening not only environmental resources, but human health. The untreated sewage from cesspools can cause Hepatitis A, conjunctivitis, salmonella, cholera and leptospirosis, a painful gastrointestinal illness.

The health department estimates that Hawaii’s cesspools release as much as 23,700 pounds of nitrogen and 6,000 pounds of phosphorous into the ground each day, threatening water quality, stimulating the growth of algae and degrading coral reefs.

The proposed rules have been criticized by homeowners balking at the cost of converting to septic tanks, estimated at $10,000 to $15,000, as well as counties, which have expressed reservations about the impact the new rules could have on lower-income residents and home sales.

The health department has worked to address the concerns, extending how long property owners have to convert to septic tanks at the time of sale from 180 days to a year. The cost can be absorbed by the seller, buyer or both. Officials have also decreased the number of cesspools that would have to be phased out by 78 percent. Under the latest rules, only cesspools near a public drinking water well or within 750 feet of a shoreline, stream or marsh would have to be switched out for a septic tank.

The health department also plans to provide zero-interest loans and grants to help homeowners pay for septic systems.

Even if the rules are approved, Gill notes that it will probably be a slow process before Hawaii eventually gets rid of many of its cesspools. It could be decades before some properties are sold and the proposed rules don’t apply to homes where ownership is transferred to family members.

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