KEAUKAHA, Hawaii Island — JayKoba Rowe had never let his asthma, his multiple skin sensitivities or his fibromyalgia keep him from his loves: swimming and fishing.

Then one day, he scratched a mosquito bite and went into the water. The result was a month of agony, after the tiny wound became infected with an antibiotic-resistant form of staphylococcus bacteria. He still bears a huge, welted scar on his hip from the experience.

Rowe is a resident of Keaukaha, a little seaside community on Hawaiian homelands across the Wailoa River from Hilo. It might be an idyllic place to grow up, if it weren’t for the neighbors.

Hilo’s sewage treatment plant used to sit right on the shore of Puhi Bay. It still hooks up to the aging pipes of the original outfall, which extends three-quarters of a mile offshore. Courtesy of Terri Napeahi

Over the decades, Department of Hawaiian Homelands leases have ringed the neighborhood with all sorts of industrial polluters: Hilo International Airport, Hilo Landfill, the Port of Hilo, a natural gas storage facility, petroleum tank farms, industrial parks, rock quarries — and Hilo’s only sewage treatment plant.

His mother, Kim Rowe, suspects that escaped effluents from that plant may be responsible for the scar on her son’s thigh and for smaller scars from other infections on his legs.

Five years ago, the local community association formed a subcommittee called the Keaukaha Action Network, headed by Terri Napeahi, that teamed  up with University of Hawaii Hilo scientists and the Earthjustice Defense Fund to document suspected health and environmental problems caused by its industrial neighbors.

The group has documented at least 10 cases of staphylococcus and methycillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections contracted by residents after swimming.

The sewage plant, which used to sit right on the shore at Puhi Bay, was moved inland in the mid-1990s.  But it still hooks up to the aging pipes of the original outfall, which extends three-quarters of a mile offshore.

For decades, the community has fought the county to take action on numerous sewage spills from the plant and its pipes. In 2014, it enlisted the help of the Environmental Protection Agency, which ordered the county to fix the pipes. But yet another spill occurred in April 2017.

A warning sign near the Puhi Bay sewage outfall pipe after a recent leak. Courtesy of Terri Napeahi

Last June, the county, working under an EPA consent order, finished repairs on several underwater and underground leaks from the pipes that lead to the plant’s sewage outfall, off the coast at Puhi Bay, where many residents camp and fish all summer. But the community’s celebration was tempered by news of a new state law that may mean more sewage than ever will be flowing through those pipes.

Ironically, much of Keaukaha has never been connected to the sewer system that drains through it.

“We have manhole covers with hydrogen sulfide emitting from them, but it’s not our hydrogen sulfide,” said Kim Rowe.

Many community members rely on cesspools, whose seepage may also be contributing to pollution along their beaches. But Act 125, passed by the Legislature last year, has decreed that all cesspools in the state be phased out by 2050.

Keaukaha residents, like other cesspool users across the state, will have to to either come up with up to $20,000 or so to construct septic tanks or other, cleaner systems, or else pay monthly fees — currently $27 per month on the Big Island — to  hook up to the sewer, provided the line can be extended to reach them. That may eliminate some of the local pollution — but the aging pipes to the Puhi Bay outfall will  have to carry an even bigger load.

William Kucharsky, Hawaii County’s director of environmental management, told Civil Beat that the current wastewater treatment plant, built in the 1990s, could handle up to 5 million gallons of sewage per day, and was currently handling only 1.7-1.8 million gallon per day.

But the sewer lines are much older: According to Kucharsky, much of the cast iron piping was laid in the 1960s. And the system by no means covers all of Hilo. Thousands of homes in Hilo proper also still aren’t hooked up to the grid.

A recent Hawaii Department of Health report states that the city, overall, has about 8,100 cesspools. And Keakaha and Hilo will be competing for funding with the rest of the island, where communities such as Kapoho and Puako also have significant problems with cesspools leaking into coastal waters.

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The public beach/swimming area at Puhi Bay. Courtesy of Terri Napeahi

According to the DOH report, Hawaii Island holds 49,300 cesspools islandwide — more than half of those in the entire state. Kucharski estimates that converting all of those cesspools would cost from a half-billion to a billion dollars.

Where the money for this massive upgrade is going to come from is currently unclear, though one method of finance under consideration may be a rate hike for sewer service.

Keaukaha has a “special kind of interest” in the sewage crisis, said Kucharsky, “Because they’re a Hawaiian community; they use the ocean for more than recreation. We want to protect all of our coastline; that’s just a fact, we want to be able to do that. The only question is how to do that in a way that doesn’t become onerous. That’s what I struggle with, is how to accomplish that.”

Local politicians are also looking at the sewage issue.

“They don’t have oceans in other states, and somehow they’re managing their wastewater,” said County Councilwoman Susan Lee Loy, who represents Hilo and also lives on Hawaiian Homelands.

Terri Napeahi 

Loy was considering introducing a bill to create an asset fund, which polluting industries and utilities would pay into to cover cleanups, upgrades and monitoring. One use for those moneys, for instance, might be funding for a second DOH staffer to monitor water quality. The entire county currently only has one, stationed in Kona.

State Rep. Joy SanBuenaventura of Puna noted there is currently a tax credit for switching from cesspools in areas near waterways. She suggested that that credit should be expanded to include high risk areas such as tsunami inundation zones (which would include most of Keaukaha). Ultimately, she said, Hilo needed to build a second sewage treatment plant to take some of the burden off Keaukaha.

Rep. Chris Todd, whose district includes Hilo and Keaukaha, said he was also working to get a second DOH water tester on the island — and to expand the testing regimen, which currently looks only for a couple of common fecal bacteria species in coastal waters; he wanted testing to include staph and MRSA.

Last week, Napeahi announced she was challenging Todd in this year’s election.  She also wants a second water quality monitor, and an expanded monitoring regimen — not only for staph and MRSA, but also for sewage nutrients that could cause bacterial blooms. But she also advocates closing the current Hilo sewage facility entirely.

“Our community doesn’t want it anymore,” Napeahi said.

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