Concerned that raw sewage is contaminating coastal waters and threatening drinking water supplies, lawmakers have advanced two bills that would ban new cesspools and provide tax credits to help homeowners who already have cesspools convert to other systems.

Hawaii has long been the only state that allows new cesspools, holes in the ground that discharge raw, untreated waste.

House Bill 1141, which would ban new cesspools as well as new structures tied to existing cesspools beginning in 2017, and House Bill 1140, which affords homeowners a yet-to-be-defined refundable income tax credit, have both passed the House and crossed over to the Senate for deliberation. The credits would help homeowners convert to septic tanks or an aerobic treatment unit, or connect to a county sewage system.

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 leading into Kaneohe Bay last November after high levels of bacteria associated with sewage were detected. Health officials suspect that about 700 cesspools in the area were the likely cause.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The legislation follows a failed effort by Hawaii Department of Health officials to get Gov. Neil Abercrombie to sign new administrative rules before he left office at the beginning of last December that would have made similar changes.

In addition to banning new cesspools, the Health Department rules would also require property owners to convert cesspools to septic tanks within a year of a home being sold.

The rules could still be signed by Gov. David Ige. Cindy McMillan, a spokesman for the governor, said that Ige is currently reviewing them.

“There are a number of health and environmental concerns that are associated with the 90,000 cesspools around the state. And it’s time that we start phasing them out.” — State Sen. Mike Gabbard

Past efforts to ban cesspools have been opposed by homeowners balking at the cost, which can range from $10,000 to $30,000, as well as real estate interests worried about the impact on home sales.

This year’s bill affording homeowners a tax break for converting their cesspools appears to have quelled opposition from groups like the Hawaii Association of Realtors, which expressed concerns about proposed cesspool bans in the past.

Lawmakers are still considering how to reduce the tax credit’s cost to the state. A similar bill proposed by Sen. Mike Gabbard was killed in the Senate Ways and Means Committee last month because of its projected cost of $45 million.

Gabbard said that there are ways to bring down the costs of the credits, however, and intends to hear both of the House bills, which were proposed by Rep. Nicole Lowen, in the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, which he chairs.

The ‘Cesspool Capital’

There are about 90,000 cesspools throughout Hawaii. The tax credit could be scaled back to only apply to about 20,000 cesspools that are near groundwater or coastal water sources, said Gabbard.

Gabbard and other lawmakers said they are also considering tying the tax credit to homeowner income levels, which would further reduce its cost.

Wealthy beachfront homeowners can afford the conversions, said Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran, but others can’t.

“There are people that live in much poorer rural areas that don’t have multi-million-dollar homes, and $15,000 to $30,000 (for a septic system) is close to what they make in a year,” Keith-Agaran said.

“We need to think about the long-term, potential costs of not doing anything when it comes to public health.” — Stuart Coleman, Surfrider Foundation

Hawaii has the ignominious distinction among environmentalists as being the “cesspool capital” of the country. The state has more cesspools than any other state, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Hawaii is also the only state that still permits new cesspools. Rhode Island was the last state other than Hawaii to ban them, and that was 50 years ago, according to the Surfrider Foundation.

Stuart Coleman, who heads Surfrider’s Hawaii chapter, said that the cost of converting all of the state’s cesspools may have hampered past efforts to ban them, but noted that the state Health Department has offered low-cost loans to homeowners to aid in the process.

“We need to think about the long-term, potential costs of not doing anything when it comes to public health,” he said.

Health officials say that cesspool sewage poses a risk to drinking water aquifers, freshwater streams and coastal waters.

Raw sewage can cause Hepatitis A, conjunctivitis, salmonella, cholera and leptospirosis, a painful gastrointestinal illness. The waste is also associated with elevated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen, which harm water quality, stimulate algae growth and harm coral reefs.

“There are a number of health and environmental concerns that are associated with the 90,000 cesspools around the state,” said Gabbard. “And it’s time that we start phasing them out.”

High Bacteria at Kahaluu Lagoon

Hawaii’s cesspool problem attracted heightened concern from health officials last year when water sampling at Kahaluu Lagoon on Oahu’s windward side revealed alarmingly high levels of bacteria associated with sewage. Some of the bacteria samples were hundreds of times the state’s safe limit and health officials suspect that the approximately 700 cesspools in the area were likely the cause, though a department investigation is ongoing.

The levels at Kahaluu have approached those found in the Ala Wai Canal in 2006, when city officials notoriously dumped 48 million gallons of raw sewage in the waterway — a desperate measure to stop the raw waste from spewing out of a broken pipe and onto the streets of Waikiki.

Over the years, health officials have also raised concerns about the health and environmental impacts of cesspools in Waimanalo Beach Lots on Oahu, in the area around Hanalei Bay on Kauai and Kapoho on the Big Island.

Cesspools also pose a risk to underground drinking water supplies. Lowen said that this risk is particularly high in Puna on the Big Island, where many homeowners have drinking water wells.

Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for Ige, said that the administration would take a look at the House bills “to determine how best to help with input” when they cross over to the Senate.

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