Hawaii delegation wants to get money to upgrade a failing wastewater treatment plant.

WASHINGTON — Hawaii’s congressional delegation is seeking a $247 million fix to a longstanding public health problem for Windward Oahu.

Marine Corps Base Hawaii needs to upgrade its aging wastewater treatment plant after being fined nearly $250,000 last year for discharging high levels of fecal bacteria into the popular bay.

U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda and Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono have asked for the money to help the base’s water reclamation facility cut down on potential future discharges that put people and the environment at risk while at the same time bolstering resilience to tsunamis, cyberattacks and terrorism.

The project will also allow the base to better treat its wastewater so that it can be dedicated for other uses, such as irrigation.

Kaneohe Bay Oceanfront reef aerial1.
Members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation are seeking $247 million to help Marine Corps Base Hawaii upgrade its water reclamation facility after a fecal discharge last year in Kaneohe Bay. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

The funding would come through a congressional earmark, money that lawmakers can set aside for special projects in their district that were not originally included in the president’s budget. In general, Hawaii outperforms most states when it comes to securing these types of funds.

But whether the earmark comes through in fiscal year 2024, which starts Oct. 1, is an open question, especially as Republicans square off with Democrats over raising the debt ceiling.

GOP leaders in the House, led by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, have said they will only raise the debt limit if Democrats agree to deep spending cuts in the upcoming budget and other concessions aimed at adding additional work requirements to federal aid programs, such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides money for groceries.

So far, President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have refused to acquiesce.

“Nothing is guaranteed,” Schatz said. “The optimistic scenario is that we avoid default and then we have a topline agreement that allows us to move forward on appropriations, but none of that is certain.”

For Hawaii’s earmark requests to go through, Schatz said Congress will need to pass a budget in the coming year. Even that is an open question, he said, given the current state of affairs in Washington.

“We have to get through this crisis first,” he said.

Although Marine Corps Base Hawaii has a permit to discharge treated wastewater into Kailua Bay, it must ensure that the levels of enterococcus bacteria remain under a prescribed limit. When the Hawaii Department of Health issued its six-figure fine last year, officials said that the base exceeded those limits on “numerous occasions” between August 2020 and February 2022.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Marine Corps wastewater outfall pipe was in Kaneohe Bay. It has been updated to reflect that the pipe empties into Kailua Bay.

But the state’s recent disciplinary action wasn’t the first sign of trouble.

Tokuda, who is from Kaneohe and sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said the Marine Corps base’s treatment plant has been a longstanding problem in the community as has the City and County’s own facility in Kailua, which shares the same outfall and has experienced its own discharges of fecal bacteria.

U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda said residents can smell when there’s too much fecal matter in the water. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“You grew up around Kaneohe Bay knowing never to eat the stuff you catch out there,” she said. “For many on the windward side, you just knew there were issues. You literally could smell it.”

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Defense Department has at least $137 billion in deferred maintenance costs and could face up to an additional $91 billion to pay for environmental liabilities.

Tokuda said that the wastewater treatment facility is near the top of the list, at least locally, but due to competing priorities it never secured the necessary funding, which is why it’s necessary for the delegation to step in.

“We can’t wait,” Tokuda said. “The health of our water, whether it’s our drinking water or the water surrounding our islands, is critically important. This is about identifying this as a priority and fighting to push it forward.”

She hopes that by securing such a large investment to mitigate the military’s environmental impacts in Hawaii that it will help to rebuild public trust.

The Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay is not the only place where the military’s infrastructure is failing.

Military families have complained for years about the decrepit state of base housing, including at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Schofield Barracks and Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

The U.S. Navy’s World War II-era underground fuel farm at Red Hill has a long history of leakage, including one in 2021 that sickened thousands of nearby residents after petroleum seeped into the local groundwater supply.

And in 2022, the state fined the Navy $8.7 million after “repeated discharges of untreated or partially treated sewage to state waters.”

Lt. Mark McDonough, a Marine Corps spokesman, said fixing the base’s wastewater treatment plant, which was first constructed in 1947, has been a local priority for almost 20 years, but that the funding has been a challenge due to the Defense Department’s maintenance backlog.

He said he understands the necessity for the department to prioritize projects, but that he’s hopeful that Hawaii’s delegation will be successful in the coming budget year.

“Marine Corps Base Hawaii has been asking for this since 2005,” McDonough said. “We want this and we’ve wanted this for a long time. It’s not because of a lack of asking.”

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author