While many people might know Hawaii for its beaches or waterfalls, the state is also known to environmentalists as the nation’s cesspool capital, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hawaii is the only state that doesn’t ban the construction of new cesspools, essentially holes in the ground that discharge raw, untreated sewage.

Lawmakers have discussed several bills this session regarding about 90,000 cesspools located throughout Hawaii, but only one measure has made it to conference committee.

House Bill 1140, which was introduced by Rep. Nicole Lowen, would give home owners up to a $10,000 tax credit to convert cesspools to a septic system, an aerobic treatment unit system or to connect to a sewer system. The bill is scheduled for a conference committee hearing on Friday at 11 a.m.

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

“It looks like it’s got good momentum,” Rep. Chris Lee, the conference committee chair for HB 1140, told Civil Beat on Wednesday.

Other attempts to phase out Hawaii’s 90,000 or so cesspools have not been successful this session. House Bill 1141, would have banned the construction of new cesspools altogether, but it was never scheduled by the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee.

Senate Bill 1272, a companion bill to HB 1140, would have also given taxpayers a credit to upgrade their cesspool systems. However, the bill died in the Senate Ways and Means Committee because of its projected $45 million cost.

Under HB 1140, homeowners who ask for financial assistance to upgrade their cesspools and who live close to a waterway would be given priority to help the state cut costs.

“It’s still up in the air, but we want to prioritize fixing the cesspools that are causing the most damage nearest our shoreline and nearest our water supplies,” Lee said. “That means realistically a much smaller cost … it will probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of well under $10 million.”

The Health Department also recommended that the state first give tax credits to upgrade the 6,860 cesspools statewide that affect water resources; 2,552 are within close proximity to public drinking wells, while another 4,308 are within 200 feet of streams, shorelines and wetlands.

Environmental groups support HB 1140, claiming cesspools damage to Hawaii’s reefs and watersheds. The Hawaii Farm Bureau also testified in support, noting that converting cesspools to septic systems can cost up to $20,000 per cesspool.

Even the Hawaii Association of Realtors, which has shown concern about previous attempts to ban cesspools, supported the intent of HB 1140. It said the proposal is a “good and practical approach towards incentivizing owners to voluntarily convert their cesspool systems.”

Approximately 55 million gallons of untreated sewage from cesspools are injected into Hawaii’s public drinking water sources and surface water, according to the Department of Health’s testimony on HB 1140.

And 800 additional cesspools are still built every year. About 87,000 of Hawaii’s 90,000 cesspools pose a risk to Hawaii’s water resources, according the the health department. Untreated wastewater from cesspools can cause gastroenteritis, Hepatitis A, conjunctivitis, leptospirosis, salmonellosis and cholera.

Cesspools in Hawaii release as much as 23,700 pounds of nitrogen and nearly 6,000 pounds of phosphorus into the ground every day, which can harm coral reefs and shorelines that are “key to Hawaii’s economy,” according to the Department of Health’s testimony.

Last fall, the Department of Health found that Kahaluu lagoon, which leads into Kaneohe Bay, was contaminated with bacteria associated with human sewage. There are almost 700 cesspools in the Kahaluu watershed, which could have led to the contamination.

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