A Dirty Cesspool Secret And A Cautionary Tale For Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Stuart Coleman

Stuart Coleman is the executive director and co-founder of WAI Org Inc (Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations). A writer, speaker and surfer, Coleman is also the author of the award-winning book “Eddie Would Go.” For more info, go to www.WaiCleanWater.org and sign up for WAI’s newsletters.

Hawaii has more cesspools per capita than any other state and was the last in the country to ban them by several decades. That’s a dirty little secret that has remained hidden from most tourists and even many residents.

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But it’s time to get to the bottom of this issue, spill the tea about cesspools and talk about how these substandard systems fail to offer any treatment of poop and pee.

There are 88,000 cesspools across the islands, and these are basically just holes in the ground that discharge more than 53 million gallons of untreated sewage per day into our groundwater. That’s like a massive sewage spill every day! Most people have a “flush and forget” mentality when it comes to sanitation, but it has become increasingly hard to ignore the damaging effect of sewage pollution here in Hawaii and across the U.S.

Sewage pollution from cesspools poses serious risks to water resources, human health and near-shore ecosystems. Many of these substandard systems are located near water wells and sensitive coastal areas. In Keaau on the Big Island, there are over 9,400 cesspools, and studies by the Hawaii Department of Health have shown that 25% of drinking water wells in the area tested positive for fecal indicator bacteria.

There is some good news. Over the last six years, a coalition of environmental groups, government officials and concerned citizens helped pass three new laws to help protect water quality:

  • Act 120 banned the construction of new cesspools
  • Act 125 mandated the conversion of all cesspools by 2050
  • Act 132 created the Cesspool Conversion Working Group

While serving on the Cesspool Conversion Working Group, I co-founded an environmental nonprofit called WAI: Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations to help tackle this issue.

At WAI, we are dedicated to protecting water quality and reducing sewage pollution. We do this by working to pass new laws and policies and finding new funding sources to help homeowners, as well as providing innovative sanitation technologies that are more efficient, eco-friendly and affordable.

After three years of meetings, the Cesspool Conversion Working Group is in the process of writing its final report with recommendations to the state on how best to convert all cesspools. Before that report is released later this year, it’s important to examine how other parts of the country are dealing with the same issues to learn from their experiences and benefit from the progress they have made.

In the summer of 2021, our WAI team visited our partners at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. Stony Brook’s Center for Clean Water Technology is part of the same national Decentralized Wastewater Innovation Cohort with WAI and four other organizations across the country, and they have done extensive research on wastewater and nutrient pollution. What we learned on Long Island would prove to be a cautionary tale for Hawaii.

Nutrient Pollution

Although Hawaii has the highest number of cesspools per capita, Suffolk County has the most in sheer numbers (over 250,000). After years of studying wastewater issues, researchers at Stony Brook University and other institutions have shown that nutrient pollution (mostly nitrogen and phosphorus) from cesspools and failing septic systems are wreaking havoc on estuaries and coastal ecosystems.

Excessive amounts of nitrogen from cesspools and failing septic systems make their way into the groundwater and down to the shorelines, causing toxic algal blooms, beach closures, fish kills and shellfish restrictions. The nutrient pollution has become so bad that it led to the near complete collapse of the once-thriving shellfish industry in Suffolk County.

The WAI team in Suffolk County doing water quality testing in New York.
The WAI team in Suffolk County doing water quality testing in New York. Courtesy: Stuart Coleman

Beyond the environmental and economic impacts, nutrient pollution from cesspools and septic systems can also pose serious threats to human health. Suffolk County has higher nitrate levels in its drinking water than 95% of the country, and recent studies have shown that there are elevated rates of bladder and kidney cancer in communities with high nitrate levels.

During our visit to Long Island, I asked colleagues at Stony Brook University if I could use Suffolk County’s wastewater problems as a cautionary tale for Hawaii.

Without missing a beat, they said that it was important to sound the alarm about the dangers of cesspools and inadequate septic systems. Like us, they want to help Hawaii avoid the extensive environmental, economic and human health issues caused by nutrient pollution.

What did we learn from our partners in Suffolk County? Beyond the environmental and human health impacts, the main lessons revolve around the need for more innovative technology, financial resources and new policies and regulations to help implement the necessary changes.

Innovative Technology

Because Suffolk County has been wrestling with these water quality issues for decades, they have done extensive research and testing of what they call Innovative and Advanced Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems. Unlike cesspools and traditional septic systems, the county has developed a list of approved onsite technologies that reduce nutrient pollution. The list includes the most effective aerobic treatment units, including those by Fuji Clean and Orenco Systems, as well as new nature-based systems called nutrient-reducing biofilters.

Suffolk County Priority Areas for Advanced Wastewater Treatment.
Suffolk County Priority Areas for Advanced Wastewater Treatment. 

WAI helped introduce similar treatment techniques to Hawaii like Ridge to Reef’s Bioreactor Garden and Eljen’s Geotextile Sand Filter systems. Both reduce nitrogen levels dramatically yet don’t require air pumps, annual maintenance fees or increased utility fees. We brought in the first Cinderella incineration toilets, which use heat to transform waste into pathogen-free, odorless ash.

WAI is also introducing more efficient conveyance systems like Orenco’s Pressurized Liquid Only Sewer model. The PreLOS system includes a holding tank on each property that uses a small pump and thin PVC piping right below the surface to transport the liquids (which can be up to 80% of wastewater) and connect to nearby sewer lines or to a decentralized treatment plant. This model will be more affordable and less disruptive than installing large gravity sewer lines that require digging up roadways for months at a time.

Financial Resources

Suffolk County has demonstrated its commitment to replacing old cesspools and septic systems by providing state and county grants of up to $30,000 to help homeowners with the high costs of conversion. Without some financial support, most homeowners would have a hard time finding the money to install innovative systems that reduce nutrient pollution.

In a dramatic sign of progress, the Hawaii Legislature recently passed a new bill (House Bill 2195, now Act 153) that would provide up to $20,000 in grants or rebates to low-to-middle income homeowners to help with the cost of converting their cesspools. The state still needs to figure out exactly how to pass on the funds, either through grants to homeowners or rebates to contractors who install the systems. We hope they can use Suffolk County as a model.

New Policies, Regulation Reforms

With congressional passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to access large federal grants for wastewater projects. The Environmental Protection Agency is working with the state’s Department of Health to help it access more funding from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

But the state needs to create policies to set up pass-through programs with the counties and local nonprofits so they can help homeowners with the high costs and permitting hurdles of converting their cesspools.

Hawaii is still behind when it comes to converting cesspools, but we have a rare opportunity to become a national leader in new sanitation technologies and policies. By updating DOH regulations and permitting, the state can implement new treatment systems that reduce nutrient pollution. In this way, we could leapfrog past many other states that are being forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars replacing old and failing septic systems.

The WAI Cesspool Priorities Map
The WAI Cesspool Priorities Map. WAI

In the end, we need to do everything we can to protect our water quality because that is the foundation of a healthy ecosystem. In Hawaiian culture, the word for water is wai, and the word for wealth is waiwai. Without access to clean water, there is no real wealth, only gradually deteriorating health for us all.

If we learn from the cautionary tale provided by Suffolk County and other areas across the country, we can begin the work to restore our water resources and our natural ecosystems. That is a wealth beyond measure and a story worth sharing.

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About the Author

Stuart Coleman

Stuart Coleman is the executive director and co-founder of WAI Org Inc (Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations). A writer, speaker and surfer, Coleman is also the author of the award-winning book “Eddie Would Go.” For more info, go to www.WaiCleanWater.org and sign up for WAI’s newsletters.

Latest Comments (0)

so EACH cesspool discharges ~600 gallons EVERY day?

ryanmakamine · 1 year ago

Our home is at 2,200 foot elevation and is nine miles from the coast on the Big Island. The house is in a rural sub-division and was built in 1980 when putting in a cesspool was legal. It bothers me that we have cesspool and we can afford to convert it to a septic system, although I'm not sure where we would put the leach field. Are septic tanks much cleaner and environmentally better than cess pools and why? I don't want to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a septic system that is marginally better than a cess pool. I'm waiting for a more elegant solution. Any engineers out there who can advise?

Limbo · 1 year ago

Composting toilets work. With proper grey water systems and maintenance agreements, they are part of the solution.

Pukele · 1 year ago

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