The Navy is still addressing problems at its Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam wastewater treatment plant two years after state inspectors reported serious problems at the facility. 

Officials from the Hawaii Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch looked at the facility in 2019 and said they found it in such a state of disrepair that they were unable to complete the inspection.

“Our inspectors came back and immediately sounded their alarm, because one of the major findings was they couldn’t even enter the final pump station,” said Matthew Kurano, the branch’s enforcement section supervisor. “The building itself was structurally compromised.”

Hawaii officials contacted the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defense. Last month the Navy signed an agreement with the EPA to make a series of repairs and upgrades to the facility by the end of 2024.

The EPA documented extreme corrosion and damage at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam’s wastewater treatment plant. Courtesy: EPA/2019

“We continually work to improve our processes to be safer, more effective, and efficient, and work very closely with State and Federal regulators to ensure that we adhere to our permits and the law,” Navy spokeswoman Lydia Robertson said in an email. “The Navy is committed to keeping the island’s ocean waters clean.”

The base’s wastewater plant is 11.61 acres and processes both household and industrial wastewater. It provides service for up to 40,000 people, according to a Navy fact sheet, and is administered by Naval Facilities and Engineering Command Hawaii.

The facility was built in increments beginning in 1969 with large-scale construction projects completed in 1997. Between February 2002 and December 2003 the Navy built a deep ocean outfall to drain waste at sea. 

The Navy said the outfall is intended to reduce pollution in the Pearl Harbor estuary and improve the harbor’s overall water quality by taking waste into deeper waters where ocean currents are supposed to disperse it. Activated in 2005, the outfall is 2.4 miles long and expels waste 1.5 miles offshore roughly 150 feet beneath the ocean’s surface.

In 2011 the Navy highlighted upgrades to the facility, including the removal of floating steel roofs on several tanks that were replaced with fixed aluminum dome covers the Navy said would help capture methane gas for future energy projects that could use it as an alternative fuel source.

Hawaii has seven other major wastewater plants, which also discharge waste into the ocean. All of them are required to show that their operations meet the standards for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which in Hawaii is granted by the DOH after inspections.

Robertson said the base’s facility “provides a very high-level of treatment of domestic and industrial wastewater before the effluent is released into the environment” in compliance with the NPDES permit.

‘Urgent’ Problems

“There’s never a time when you won’t find anything,” said Kurano, noting that most inspections of facilities will find some sort of violations, particularly in Hawaii’s aging facilities.

“But most things aren’t that critical and urgent enough to kind of sound the alarms, right? This was,” Kurano said. “This constitutes probably one of the most urgent type of findings that we’ve had.”

When DOH staff looked at the facility in 2019 for an NPDES inspection they were concerned as much by what they could see as what they couldn’t due to unsafe conditions. After they contacted the EPA, the federal agency took the lead in investigating.

In follow-up inspections the EPA found the plant was well exceeding its discharge limits for cadmium, zinc, oil and grease, pH and total waste toxicity under the federal Clean Water Act. 

EPA and Navy officials found the plant had major algae growth, warped and disconnected parts in its machinery, cracked concrete tanks and severely corroded equipment within the facility.

Pearl Harbor Aerial Joint Base Hickam Pearl Harbor aerial1.
The EPA has been deeply critical of the Navy’s handling of wastewater and other chemicals dumped into the ocean at Pearl Harbor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

In January the EPA also released data that showed Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam released 540,000 pounds of nitrate compounds — toxic chemicals commonly found in wastewater treatment plants, fertilizers and explosives — into the sea.

The base has federal permits allowing it to dump that nitrate along with several other chemicals and hasn’t been formally cited by the EPA for any violations in recent years, but environmental officials said they hoped the disclosure of the information would promote efforts to reduce the discharge.

“The Navy’s lack of proper operation and maintenance of the treatment plant has led to excessive toxic pollution discharges into Pearl Harbor and unacceptable worker safety risks,” Amy Miller, EPA Pacific southwest regional director of enforcement and compliance assurance said in a press release last month about the new agreement.

Though Navy officials say the service will take action and comply with its agreement with the EPA, it doesn’t agree with all of the EPA’s findings.

“The Navy takes environmental stewardship very seriously,” said Robertson. “In addition, the Navy takes the safety of workers very seriously and at no time were any of our workers placed in an unsafe situation.”

Widespread Issues

As part of the agreement the Navy will submit a compliance plan to the EPA outlining wastewater treatment improvements. The agreement requires the Navy to replace, repair or refurbish the plant’s three primary clarifiers, five of the six secondary clarifiers and its effluent pump station by Dec. 31, 2024.

“The Navy will comply with the (agreement) and anticipates the work required to make the necessary repairs and refurbishments will be conducted by contractors when funding is received,” said Robertson. “The Navy plans to contract for tens of millions of dollars to upgrade the (facility) over the next several years.”

But the base’s facility isn’t the only Hawaii wastewater plant to lead to federal action.

“The findings at NAVFAC were rare, given their level of immediacy, that required correction,” said Kurano. “But unfortunately, (in) Hawaii because of the age of our wastewater treatment systems, we kind of have other plants that also have urgent issues.”

Kurano said that the aging facilities “run the gamut” in terms of both maintenance and environmental compliance.

“We have some really good ones,” said Kurano, noting he considered plants on Maui and Oahu to be doing well. “I think some of the neighbor island ones right now need a little bit of work and maybe you don’t have findings as pressing, but certainly still very significant.”

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Maui County in a case over one of its county wastewater treatment plants, arguing that Maui was attempting to skirt the Clean Water Act by merely pumping its sewage into groundwater before discharging it into the ocean.

Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele pushed for the inclusion of funds to improve wastewater facilities into President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan. In an April interview with Civil Beat, Kahele described walking through the East Hawaii wastewater plant which he called possibly “the worst in the country.”

“It’s very, very bad and potentially on the brink of a major catastrophe and I’m not exaggerating,” Kahele said.

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