The public is being advised to avoid the waters in Kailua Bay after the Marine Corps water treatment facility discharged into the ocean wastewater that contained high levels of fecal bacteria.

The discharge was reported to the state Department of Health on Tuesday. The Marine Corps has identified “ongoing maintenance activity in the plant polishing pond” as the cause of the mishap, according to a press release.

Alec Wong, a representative of the DOH Clean Water Branch, said in a statement on Thursday that the state will investigate the cause and will “take action accordingly.”

“While this is not the same level of threat as a sewage spill directly into the ocean, discharge of wastewater that does not meet permitted effluent limits is prohibited,” he said. “DOH considers this kind of effluent exceedance as unacceptable, particularly considering the Marine Corps Base Hawaii has reported similar effluent in recent months.”

Kailua Beach Park.
Avoid the water in Kailua Bay, DOH says. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Marine Corps issued a press release on Wednesday reporting an “exceedance” of enterococci, an indicator of human fecal contamination, from its water reclamation facility.

The military did not offer more details about how the mishap occurred, and Marine spokesman Capt. Eric Abrams was unable to explain on Thursday afternoon.

The military is allowed a maximum daily discharge limit of 57,850 colony-forming units, or CFUs, per milliliter, but discharged at an estimated 70,000 CFUs per milliliter. The facility discharges an average of 2.7 million gallons per day, according to the Hawaii Department of Health.

Warning signs have been posted, and the public should avoid the waters near the Mokapu Outfall until the signs are removed, DOH said.

In the press release, the Marines said that the maintenance work is “required to ensure the (Water Reclamation Facility) continues to operate effectively.”

“Honestly, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise that there was an overage there because of the maintenance that was being conducted at the time,” Abrams said.

It’s not the first time the Marine Corps has reported a fecal bacteria exceedance in Kailua. Overages were reported last year, in August and October.

The “good news,” according to Abrams, is that the Marine Corps’ effluent is combined with treated water from the city’s Kailua Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, and the military’s portion makes up only 10% of the total.

“So just because we were over doesn’t mean that the discharged amount ended up being over,” Abrams said.

The combined wastewater is released approximately two miles off-shore of the Marine Corps base at 110 feet below the surface of the ocean.

According to the Marine Corps, the direct risk of exposure to people in the water is “extremely low.”

The Marine Corps said that “the disrupting activities have been completed,” and that it is doing daily sampling to monitor the situation until levels return to normal.

The military’s stewardship of Hawaii’s environment has been criticized for years and has intensified recently amid the Navy’s fuel contamination of its Pearl Harbor area drinking water supply.

“We absolutely take seriously our responsibility to protect the environment,” Abrams said. “Things like this will happen, but fortunately, there really isn’t a danger to the community based on this type of overage.”

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