KALAHEO, Kauai — A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announcement earlier this month that it was ordering 16 large capacity cesspools on Kauai to shut down has renewed public attention on the stubbornly high number of such mega-cesspools in Hawaii.

The Kauai announcement underscored the reality that, although EPA has forced closure of more than 3,600 large waste disposal pits since 2005, there are still nearly 1,400 of them in use in the islands. And while EPA inspectors target such cesspools on an ongoing basis, the agency concedes that it may take many more years before all of them are eliminated.

An LCC is considered to be any cesspool into which wastes from 20 or more people are discharged. EPA records show there are still 665 of them on Hawaii island, 356 on Oahu, 143 on Kauai and 231 on Maui.

On Kauai, entities as diverse as the County of Kauai, a Big Save supermarket and two of the island’s best known restaurants — Brenneke’s Beach Broiler in Koloa and Tahiti Nui in Hanalei — have already completed replacement of their LCCs. The EPA has also pursued successfully a shopping center in Koloa and mega-landowner Gay & Robinson, which, according to EPA documents, had 40 LCCs.

Tahiti Nui is a local legend, made famous in the film “The Descendants,” released in 2011 and starring George Clooney. A memorable scene was shot in the restaurant. A year later, the EPA went after its cesspool.

The Tahiti Nui restaurant in Hanalei is one establishment that has been forced to deal with its large capacity cesspool. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

But the biggest offender in the state, according to EPA records, may be Kamehameha Schools, which is still conducting an audit that began in 2018 to see how many of its 500 properties on Hawaii island contain LCCs.

Final results of the audit are not due until December of this year. Kamehameha has said it found three large capacity cesspools among its holdings on Oahu and that remediation has begun. Kamehameha said none of its properties on Maui, Molokai and Kauai have LCCs.

The most recent development in the gradual EPA enforcement campaign was announced last Monday. It affected an oceanfront public restroom owned by the Kauai Beach Resort Association, which agreed to pay a $55,182 fine and close it. The general manager of the resort said he was working with a contractor to build a large pumpable septic system.

The agency also cited 15 LCCs at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Senior Apartments here. The complex has 28 units, which drain into 14 LCCs. There is a separate cesspool for the community center. The complex is owned by the Kauai Housing Development Corp., a nonprofit that operates several other housing projects on the island.

Amy Miller, director of the EPA’s regional enforcement and compliance division in San Francisco, said the 16 LCCs targeted last week were part of a systematic, if slow moving, program.

“Cesspools are generally just holes in the ground,” Miller said.

LCCs, she said, were banned in 2005. Though they represent the largest cesspools in Hawaii, Miller said the state, overall, has the highest rate of cesspool use in the country, with 88,000 spread out among the islands.

She said the agency has “some pending investigations.”

“We do conduct inspections and we have a pretty strong hit rate,” she said. “Our targeting is good. We find noncompliance almost all the time.

“Our inspectors show up. They identify themselves. They ask questions of the owner since understanding the ownership is key.”

Large cesspools are a particular target, she said, because each has far more potential to harm water quality and do other environmental damage than an individual household cesspool.

This comfort station near Kauai Beach Resort has been closed. The resort agreed to pay a hefty fine and is working to put in a new septic system. 

Sina Pruder, of the wastewater branch of the Hawaii Department of Health, said the agency has estimated that Hawaii cesspools collectively release 53 million gallons of untreated sewage into the ground each day. She said cesspools contaminate ground water, drinking water sources, steams and oceans.

They damage coral reefs and can cause a wide range of diseases, she said, including gastroenteritis, Hepatitis A, conjunctivitis, leptospirosis, salmonella and cholera.

Nick Minicola, general manager at Kauai Beach Resort, said the original beachfront restroom was built in the 1980s. The resort hired Aqua Engineers, a prominent local environmental consultant, to engineer a new tank system, for which permitting is now being sought, Minicola said.

Minicola said the new system will be costly, but “we’re happy that we can put things to rest and have a plan to move forward. We’re happy to comply.”

Milo Spindt, executive director of the Kauai Housing Development Corp., said his organization accepts the EPA action, even though the apartment complex in question is not old — completed in 1997.

“A cesspool was permitted then,” he said. “We’re a small nonprofit. Our tenants are 65 or over and make less than 50% of the mean income. But technically, we’re a commercial property.”

Spindt clearly sees compliance as an inevitability given contemporary concerns about water quality and environmental contamination.

“It’s been a very friendly conversation, as frustrating as it is for us to have to do this,” he said. “They’ve worked with us.”

Originally, he said, the development corporation hoped that the Legislature would authorize a state grant to underwrite the rebuilding of the housing complex’s waste system. But the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in March appears to have made such funding impossible to get until the Legislature comes to a better understanding of the full landscape of economic damage in the state.

All that’s known at the moment, he said, is that “it’s going to cost us a whole lot of money.”

“Island water resources are vulnerable to pollution from LCCs,” said John Busterud, the EPA’s regional administrator. “EPA will continue our efforts to close the remaining LCCs on Kauai.”

EPA noted that Hawaii relies on groundwater for 95 percent of its water supply. The Hawaii Legislature acted in 2017 to require replacement of all cesspools in the state by 2050.

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