Blangiardi and the state health director pushed back against assertions made by state clean water supervisors monitoring the situation.

Honolulu’s mayor denied Thursday that the city had minimized any health risks during the recent spike in bacteria levels for treated sewage released in Kailua Bay, challenging the assessment that a concerned state clean water official made earlier this week. 

He acknowledged, however, that the city might change its messaging going forward whenever such spikes occur.

“We did not in good conscience downplay anything. But we’ve learned from this experience and we’re probably going to adjust our protocols to make sure that this never comes in question again,” Mayor Rick Blangiardi said at a press conference in his office Thursday.

State Health Director Kenneth Fink, center, joined Mayor Rick Blangiardi, far right, on Thursday to shoot down assertions by one of his staff that the city had downplayed health concerns during a recent spate of elevated bacteria samples at the Kailua sewage treatment plant. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The mayor’s office held the event specifically to refute comments made Tuesday by the state’s acting clean water branch supervisor, Bobbie Teixeira, during a separate briefing on the 13 days of elevated bacteria levels at the city’s Kailua sewage treatment plant between April 8 and May 4.

On two of those days, the levels of the bacteria enterococci exceeded more than six times what’s allowed under state and federal environmental regulations.

Teixeira said the health department felt compelled to warn the public to avoid the waters of Kailua Bay and inform them just how severe the bacteria levels were because they hadn’t seen that information in the city’s daily press releases. 

Mayor Rick Blangiardi: “we didn’t come here to point blame or throw anyone under the bus.” (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

“We felt that they lacked — they downplayed how high these exceedances were, and so that’s the reason why we issued our own press release,” Teixeira said Tuesday.

On Thursday, Blangiardi invited Teixeira’s boss to the press conference, Department of Health Director Kenneth Fink, to weigh in on the matter.

He said that he agreed with the mayor. 

“I do not believe the City and County of Honolulu downplayed any risk to public health and safety,” Fink told reporters. The city “went above the permit requirements by issuing news releases and posting advisories along Kailua Bay.”

Teixeira was not at the mayor’s press conference Thursday. Blangiardi repeatedly said that the purpose of the press briefing was not to “throw anyone under the bus.”

Another state health official, Myron Honda, who supervises monitoring and analysis for the clean water branch, backed up Teixeira on Tuesday. He told reporters that the state’s clean water officials opted to take the unusual step of issuing their own press release highlighting the health concerns because they didn’t see the local media picking up any of the city’s releases.

Teixeira on Tuesday also called the recent situation at the Kailua plant “extremely worrisome” and “unusual.”

Acting Clean Water Branch Supervisor Bobbie Teixeira: What happened at the Kailua plant was “extremely worrisome.” (Department of Health 2023)

The city’s bacteria test samples at the plant returned to acceptable levels in early May and have stayed there ever since. The state considers the bay safe to use again.

City, state and federal officials are all still investigating what caused the latest spate of high enterococci levels at Kailua.

Meanwhile, the city is addressing at least two orders by the Environmental Protection Agency to upgrade its sewer systems across Oahu. One of those orders, a 2010 consent decree, requires the city to make upgrades to its sewage treatment facilities at Sand Island and Honouliuli by 2035.

A separate December 2022 order specifically deals with the Kailua Wastewater Treatment Plant and elevated levels of enterococci that have been found there in recent years, violating the city’s state-issued permit. The city has about a year to take six different steps laid out in the EPA’s administrative order to improve operations at the plant.

The city is also separately working on some $37 million in upgrades to the Kailua treatment plant, including a new ultraviolet light system to treat the enterococci, according to Michael O’Keefe, the city’s deputy director for environmental services.

That system should be ready by the end of 2025, O’Keefe said at Thursday’s press conference.

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