Editor’s note: Civil Beat’s environmental podcast “Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” has received hundreds of questions since it launched last November. The most recent episode answers three reader-submitted questions on how human sewage is impacting our oceans, if the U.S. Navy could be threatening Honolulu’s drinking water supply and what you really need to know about your carbon footprint.

Carbon Footprint

Ann Michelle Aspera wanted to know if her choice to buy an electric vehicle in 2015 has helped the environment.

“I used to drive a gas-fueled six-cylinder SUV and I’ve been curious to know, how much impact does one car make in reducing fuel emissions and greenhouse gases?” she said.

The carbon impact of an electric car is entirely dependent on how the electricity to fuel the car was generated, but in terms of personal carbon impact the Union of Concerned Scientists found on average, electric vehicles produce about half of the emissions of a gasoline-powered car.

There’s also an online calculator where you can enter your zip code and information about your car to determine the specific impact.

Electric Car Charging station at Ala Moana Shopping Center.
An electric car charges at a station at Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While focusing on your personal carbon impact is laudable it may be misguided, according to Ben Franta, a student at Stanford Law School researching the history of fossil fuel companies, climate science and climate denial.

“This idea of framing a problem that’s caused by a particular industry’s products as the fault of individual consumers has a long and interesting history,” he said.

As early as the 1950s, internal documents show that fossil fuel companies understood that the environmental impact of their product could be a threat to their bottom line.

“They were interested in questions like how soon would climate change occur? When would people notice climate change occurring? But they didn’t have any doubt as to whether climate change would occur,” he said.

Manufacturing skepticism and debate about climate change started in earnest in the 1980s and ’90s, in direct response to regulatory threats from government.

As time went on and the science became harder and harder to dispute, many fossil fuel industries pivoted to placing the blame on the individual consumer. Two examples that stick out to Franta include the BP oil company’s promotion of a “personal carbon footprint calculator” in 2004 and Chevron’s 2007 campaign “Will You Join Us?”

“They were framing themselves as the environmentally responsible party and consumers as the problem,” he said. “That ad campaign encouraged consumers to do things like change their light bulbs or get a programmable thermostat while ignoring the fact that the company was actively lobbying against environmental regulation.”

Franta said this public relations tactic has also been used by automobile manufacturers who try to shift the conversation to irresponsible drivers when faced with safety regulations like airbags and seatbelts.

One-third of all carbon emissions since the industrial revolution can be traced back to the largest 90 oil, natural gas, coal and cement producers, according to research from the Climate Accountability Institute.

The ways personal actions, like buying an electric car or going vegan, can help the climate is by signaling to large companies that they’ll lose consumer confidence if they don’t reduce emissions.

“Individual actions can be helpful as long as you keep your attention on the creators of the problem and resist industry attempts to shift the focus and the blame to individual consumers,” he said.

Human Waste In The Water

High school students Emma Klassen-Lee and Ryder Akimoto both had concerns about sewage impacting Hawaii’s waters.

“How does human waste impact coral reefs and (their) part in marine ecosystems?” Klassen-Lee asked.

Sewage from most of Hawaii’s residents and visitors is sent to sewage treatment plants, where most harmful chemicals and compounds are removed. The treated water is often injected into the ground, and a high-profile case on Maui found the treated water was still negatively impacting coral reefs near the injection site.

“Human waste has a lot of nitrogen in it and that can cause harmful algae blooms,” said Stuart Coleman, executive director of the nonprofit Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations. “An algae explosion can smother reefs and even kill fish populations.”

Scientists have found the treated wastewater flowing into the ocean off Kahekili Beach in West Maui is harmful to coral reefs. Courtesy: Jen Smith

Coleman said the biggest waste-related threat to marine ecosystems is not sewage treatment plants though, but the 90,000 cesspools across the state.

“A cesspool is just literally a hole in the ground that’s lined with bricks, and sewage from the house goes directly in there and then it just filters through it, out the sides and through the bottom, into the ground and into our groundwater,” he said.

Gasoline in Drinking Water

Every island has clusters of cesspools where someone determined connecting houses to a central sewage line would be too costly. Cesspools are one of the reasons why health experts warn people not to swim in the ocean for at least 24 hours after it rains. Rainfall washes sewage and other contaminants into the ocean.

“Effects can seem like a case of food poisoning so you may not realize it’s from the water,” said Coleman.

Akimoto wanted to know if human sewage was getting into his drinking water.

If you’re on a private well, there is a possibility that cesspools are impacting the water in your tap, Coleman said.

Testing of private wells around a cluster of cesspools on Maui for example found nitrogen levels above 10 milligrams per liter, the legal limit. All cesspools in the state are supposed to be phased out by 2050, but Coleman said the state is behind schedule.

“We need to start doing 3,000 conversions a year for the next 30 years … and right now we’re doing about 150 a year,” he said.

If your tap water comes from a treatment plant, you can check your yearly consumer confidence report for the amount of nitrates and microbiological contaminants discovered in the water system. If unsafe levels were detected, the treatment plant is required by law to report the violation and document the amount detected.

Generally, Hawaii has very clean drinking water and few federal drinking water violations. Residents in Honolulu, Kauai County, Hawaii County and Maui County can all access their consumer confidence reports online.

“Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions
Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions

What the heck is reef-safe sunscreen? Where does all the trash go? Why is it so hot? Join Civil Beat as we tackle your questions about Hawaii's environment. Smart. Irreverent. Never boring. This is not your grandma's science podcast.

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