Hawaii currently has an official goal to replace all of its cesspools with better sewage treatment systems that cause less harm to the local environment and public health by 2050.

But with as many as 83,000 cesspools releasing some 53 million gallons of untreated sewage into the islands’ soil, streams and nearshore waters each day, waiting another three decades would be too late.

That’s the recent conclusion of the state task force that’s investigating the pervasive problem. The Cesspool Conversion Working Group on Wednesday called for nearly 14,000 of the worst Hawaii cesspools – the ones that could potentially cause the most damage based on their location – to be removed by 2030.

Another batch of more than 12,000 “priority two” cesspools would be gone by 2035 under the new plan. A remaining “priority three” batch of some 55,000 cesspools would then be removed by the original 2050 deadline.

“There are no benefits to human health or the environment if homeowners wait or postpone conversion until closer to the 2050 … deadline,” the 17-member task force of scientists, public health officials, private industry representatives, elected leaders and environmental advocates wrote in a new 1,182-page report to the Legislature.

Caution Signs at Kahaluu Warning of Cesspool Pollution
The state task force investigating Hawaii’s widespread cesspool issue is calling for earlier deadlines to remove the highest-priority cesspools. Courtesy: Surfrider Foundation

“If action isn’t taken soon, nearly all reefs in Hawaii will be threatened by 2050,” the report says. “The rush to be last to convert (cesspools) would lead to severe bottlenecks around permitting and technology access, not to mention years of added wastewater pollution to the state’s freshwater and marine resources.”

Several members of the task force presented their new tiered-deadline proposal plus other recommendations to state lawmakers during an informational briefing Wednesday at the Capitol. They asked the lawmakers to pass new legislation in the coming session, which starts Jan. 18, that would reflect the updated goals.

Overall, state officials estimate that Hawaii is about $1 billion short of the $2 billion or so it will need to convert all of those raw-sewage disposal systems with cleaner sewage-treatment alternatives.

Task force members, meanwhile, recommended that the state draw heavily from its share of federal dollars from the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act and American Rescue Plan Act to help fund the cesspool conversions.

They also called on the state and county governments to develop low-interest loan programs to help families better afford the daunting costs to replace their cesspools.

It’s difficult or even impossible for many Hawaii households to afford the costs of converting a cesspool without some financial assistance or special loan program, and that burden has to be properly addressed, they said.

Cesspool Hawaii Prioritization Tool
This image of Oahu comes from the Hawaii Cesspool Prioritization Tool, an interactive map that details the state’s cesspools and how severe of an environmental and public health threat they are based on location. UH Sea Grant/2023

“This would give property owners approximately six years to convert their systems,” House Speaker Scott Saiki said Wednesday of the proposed updated deadlines. “We can certainly introduce the proposal and hold a public hearing on it to hear everyone’s opinion on the feasibility of this proposal.”

He added that the task force worked for four years on the report.

The average cost to convert a cesspool to some cleaner form of sewage treatment is about $23,000, Cari Ishida, a project manager with the consulting firm Carollo Engineers, told members of the House Energy and Environment Committee and the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee.

That conversion could amount to a $210 average monthly cost when combined with the price to maintain the replacement system, Ishida said. The average sewer bill on Oahu is about half that price, at $111, she added.

Rep Nicole Lowen during info forum on cesspools.
Rep Nicole Lowen chairs the House’s Energy and Environment Committee. The Legislature will consider whether to update its removal deadlines for the state’s worst cesspools. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Meanwhile on Hawaii island, where most of the state’s cesspools are located, the average monthly sewer bill is $40, Ishida said.

State lawmakers last year passed a new state grant initiative to help low- and moderate-income families replace cesspools. The $5 million program provides up to $20,000 to families living at 140% of the annual median income or less who need to convert a cesspool, according to Nicole Lowen, a Big Island representative who chairs the House Energy and Environment Committee.

Sina Pruder, a program manager with the state Department of Health’s Wastewater Branch, told Lowen and other lawmakers, including Sen. Mike Gabbard, that “procurement issues” have delayed that grant program’s launch but she expects it to start in the next couple of months.

“We don’t want to give promises to these homeowners and not deliver,” Pruder told lawmakers.

Researchers considered how close each cesspool was to drinking water wells, coastlines, areas expected to be inundated by sea level rise and beaches with lifeguard stations among other factors to determine whether they were a top priority for removal, according to Christopher Shuler, a researcher at the University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant College Program.

Shuler’s team developed an interactive map that shows all of Hawaii’s cesspools and their priority level.

Sea level rise will eventually push groundwater levels higher up, and that will deposit even more cesspool waste out into the island environment, Ted Bohlen, a task force member, told the lawmakers.

Leaving the deadline to convert simply at 2050 “would put us in a bad situation,” Bohlen said.

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