WASHINGTON — Before U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele returned to Washington last week, he joined professional surfer Laird Hamilton for a boat tour of the Hanalei River on Kauai.

Hamilton pointed out the invasive hau bush along the riverbanks and talked to the congressman about the heavy rains that erode the hillsides and submerge the roadways, occasionally cutting off the tiny North Shore community from the rest of the island.

Kahele also witnessed the disappearing shorelines caused by coastal erosion and rising sea levels triggered by climate change.

Pro surfer Laird Hamilton gives U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele a tour of the Hanalei River on Kauai. Courtesy: Kai Kahele

A freshman lawmaker who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Kahele wanted to see firsthand how Hawaii’s bridges, roads and highways were holding up so that he could report back to his colleagues how much money the state might need should Congress pass President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan.

What Kahele saw, however, was not pretty.

In an interview with Civil Beat, Kahele described walking through a decades-old wastewater treatment plant that he thinks might be the “worst in the country” and visiting waterfronts where treated sewage is dumped onto the shoreline “right onto the rocks.”

“It’s not sexy,” Kahele said. “But if you saw what I saw you would know this is something we need to address.”

Kahele, like other Democrats, has been stumping for Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which aims to upgrade the nation’s ports, railways and bridges while investing in green energy.

He recently hosted a video roundtable with U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, who is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to discuss some of the islands’ top priorities. Among the guest speakers were the head of Hawaiian Electric and the Pacific Resource Partnership, a labor organization that advocates for Honolulu’s $12.4 billion rail project.

In his interview with Civil Beat, Kahele emphasized the need to address large capacity cesspools and injection wells in his 2nd Congressional District, which represents rural Oahu and the neighbor islands.

For too long, he said, local officials have abdicated their responsibility when it came to addressing aging infrastructure and finding ways to transition away from cesspools that allow raw, untreated sewage to leach into the environment.

Now, he said, he and the rest of Hawaii’s federal delegation need to game out a way to get them the help they need to fix a problem that he estimates requires hundreds of millions of dollars at a minimum.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CIVIL BEAT: What would you describe as your top priorities in this infrastructure proposal that’s been released by the Biden administration?

KAHELE: I’m focused on wastewater and clean drinking water. It’s really important that we try and get as much money as we can for the state and various counties so that we can invest in modern, upgraded wastewater systems so that we can provide clean drinking water, protect our aquifers, protect our nearshore fisheries and protect our coral reefs.

In the American Jobs Plan, the president’s proposing about $111 billion to ensure clean and safe drinking water, and I’m hoping that the delegation can secure as much of that as we can.

We know Hawaii is graded a D+ in the (American Society of Civil Engineers) infrastructure report card and we know that we’ve suffered from a lack of investment for years in infrastructure.

There are specific projects that need to be done more throughout the 2nd Congressional District, and then probably the 1st Congressional District, which has a modern wastewater system. The 2nd Congressional District is sorely lagging behind.

There are major issues on Hawaii island — the island that I reside on — that need to be immediately addressed by the county of Hawaii and that have been put off for far too long by too many administrations.

Can you give a couple of examples of the projects that come to mind for you?

There are two major large capacity cesspools on Hawaii island at Pahala and Naalehu. There’s an administrative order on consent for the county of Hawaii from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that has been in existence since 2017 during the Harry Kim administration.

Large capacity cesspools were prohibited in April of 2005. The county of Hawaii has been in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and EPA federal rules and regulations since 2010 when the county took over responsibility of the large capacity cesspools at Pahala and Naalehu.

An aerial view of the East Hawaii wastewater treatment facility that U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele describes as potentially the “worst” in the nation. Courtesy: Kai Kahele

That’s a major problem right now in the county of Hawaii. They could be subject to millions of dollars in fines if they don’t complete their projects and they’re nowhere near complying with the administrative order on consent.

Another issue is the two wastewater facilities that exist in the county of Hawaii. The East Hawaii wastewater facility is potentially the worst wastewater facility in the nation. It’s very, very bad and potentially on the brink of a major catastrophe and I’m not exaggerating.

What makes it so bad?

They built it in 1992 and it’s never been maintained. No administration has put any money toward it. Raw sewage is highly corrosive and there has been zero maintenance done to the facility. The Hawaii County employees who work at that facility have done a yeoman’s effort to continue its operation, but it’s in desperate, desperate need of millions of dollars of investment.

Hawaii County needs probably about $500 million to $700 million to address the large capacity cesspools and the wastewater systems that are in Hilo and Kona as well as the four 60-year-old plantation era wastewater systems that they have on the Hamakua Coast that in some cases discharge treated wastewater right onto the shoreline. It’s not even going into the ocean; it’s right onto the rocks.

There are thousands of cesspools on Hawaii island and each one of those is going to take a ton of money to replace.

If you want to jump over to Maalaea Bay on Maui there are about 10 condominiums there that have been injecting wastewater right into the bay through injection wells.

Basically, wastewater gets treated at each individual condo and then that wastewater gets put right back into the ground and that has had major effects on the Maalaea Bay coral as well as the nearshore fisheries. It’s the same issue they had in Lahaina where Maui County lost a decision in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Maui Mayor Michael Victorino and U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele survey the damage caused by the overflow of a private dam. Courtesy: Kai Kahele

A number of wastewater issues exist throughout the 2nd Congressional District. Some islands are better than others. Hawaii County is the worst. But that’s what I’m hoping to fight for so that we can ensure the public has clean drinking water and that our groundwater aquifers are safe.

It’s not sexy, right? People want the parks and the golf courses and the things that they use and see every day (to be safe). But wastewater has really been disregarded for years and years and years and it’s something we have to address as a state.

This is a great time to do that with the American Rescue Plan because it can provide millions of dollars for jobs and investment into Hawaii’s wastewater infrastructure.

The infrastructure package is huge — more than $2 trillion — but based on what you’re describing that’s still not going to be enough.

If Hawaii could get $1 billion dollars to address wastewater issues that would at least put us on the path. There are 2 million people in the U.S. who don’t have access to clean drinking water.

If there’s $111 billion nationally to address safe drinking water and the elimination of all lead pipes then I’m hoping we can marry that up with the elimination of large capacity cesspools and addressing our county wastewater treatment facilities.

It’s going to require some legislative wrangling on your part as well as the rest of the delegation to make sure there’s money for these projects. At this point there’s still no bill text, but the White House fact sheet about the proposal doesn’t even contain the word “cesspool.” Can you explain how you plan to convince your colleagues that these funds should be set aside for these projects?

We’re headed back to D.C. to figure out how to make the sausage and engage with the committees of jurisdiction and the EPA so that we can figure out how we can do this. So I’m going to have to get back to you on how we’ll be able to incorporate it. Doing nothing is not an option.

You hosted a roundtable with U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio in which he said House members will get $15 million to $20 million to spend on projects of their choosing. Have you given much thought to how you would allocate those funds?

Well, $15 million to $20 million dollars is not a lot of money. You start with the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan and the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization’s own transportation improvement plan which basically outline the projects that are already authorized for a federal cost share.

For example, among the state’s top bridges to replace are two bridges in Makaha right near Makaha Beach that were built in the 1930s. They’re wooden, they’re old and they need to be replaced so that’s an opportunity in the 2nd Congressional District.

In Hilo, Waianuenue Avenue is another road resurfacing project that needs federal monies. Of course you have the completion of the Daniel K. Inouye Highway on the Big Island on the Kona side that needs federal funds too.

There are a lot of projects out there, but largely those come to us from the state transportation plan or the counties and the various mayors who tell us what specific bridges or roadways they would like financial help for, so that’s what we’re going to do.

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