The Department of Health is investigating what caused high levels of bacteria in treated sewage from the wastewater plant at the popular bay.

State environmental officials say they were compelled to warn the public to avoid Kailua Bay waters earlier this month after the city “downplayed” how serious the health risks there were following several weeks of troubling bacteria test results.

Those test samples revealed abnormally high levels of a bacteria called enterococcus in treated sewage at the city’s 1960s-era Kailua Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant between April 8 and May 4. The plant’s treated sewage is released about a mile out into the bay. 

The high bacteria levels occurred on 13 different days. On two of those days, the levels exceeded more than six times what’s allowed under state and federal environmental regulations, according to the Hawaii Department of Health.

Pipes run across the city’s Kailua Wastewater Treatment Plant. State and federal officials are investigating operations following multiple instances of high bacteria levels detected in the treated sewage there. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Bobbie Teixeira, an acting supervisor at the DOH’s Clean Water Branch, called the duration and the magnitude of the bacteria levels in the city’s treated sewage “extremely worrisome.”

“It is unusual,” Teixeira said during an online press briefing Tuesday. “This shouldn’t happen.”

None of the dozen or so press releases issued by the city’s Environmental Services Department during that three-week testing period indicated just how severe the enterococcus levels were. 

They “downplayed how high these exceedances were,” Teixeira said.

That prompted state environmental health officials on May 5 to take the unusual step of issuing their own news release. The state release disclosed the severity of the bacteria levels and advised the public to stay out of most of the bay.

This state map shows the affected area of Kailua Bay that had high bacteria levels linked to the nearby wastewater treatment facility. (Courtesy: Hawaii Department of Health/2023)
This state map shows the affected area of Kailua Bay that the public was advised to avoid recently due to high bacteria levels linked to the nearby wastewater treatment facility. (Courtesy: Hawaii Department of Health/2023)

The levels violated the city’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which allows the city to operate the Kailua plant.

On May 8, Environmental Services announced that the bacteria levels had returned to well within acceptable levels over the previous three days and that the plant was back in compliance. 

Teixeira said Tuesday that her branch now considers the bay’s waters safe for the public to use again.

City Environmental Services Deputy Director Michael O’Keefe also said Tuesday that he’s confident the problem is over. The city is still completing its investigation into what caused the sustained, elevated bacteria levels at the plant, he added.

Asked about DOH’s concerns over the press releases, O’Keefe said that his division had been in “almost constant” communication with the state about water quality issues amid the high bacteria levels. City officials were surprised to hear the comments and did not know the briefing had taken place, he added.

Doubts Over The Shoreline Bacteria

The city also tested for bacteria along the bay’s shoreline during that same period. The results showed high levels of enterococcus there over four days. 

However, storm runoff from heavy rains around that same time were to blame, not the sewage treatment plant, the city said in its May 8 press release.

 State health officials on Tuesday said that the city could not know that for certain.

Clean Water Branch Acting Supervisor Bobbie Teixeira says the city “downplayed how high these exceedances were.” (Courtesy: Department of Health/2023)

“We cannot tell where it’s coming from — whether it’s coming from the environment or whether it’s coming from the treatment plant,” said Myron Honda, a monitoring and analysis supervisor for the state’s clean water branch. “But whenever it is high, we just assume it’s coming from the plant.”

O’Keefe said the city could not be “100% certain” the shoreline bacteria came from storm runoff. But he said based on what the city knows about shoreline sampling results and the behavior of the water around the deep ocean outfall where the sewage is released, “we can say very confidently that it was not from the plant.”

The National Institutes of Health says enterococci bacteria can be harmful to humans. It can cause urinary tract infections, bacteria in the bloodstream, meningitis, intra-abdominal infections and wound infections. The medical research group says resistant strains require prolonged courses of antibiotics.

Meanwhile, both state and federal regulators continue to investigate the city’s sewage operations at the Kailua plant. The state hasn’t announced any enforcement actions.

Concerns remain over high bacteria levels in Kailua Bay.
Concerns remain over the recent high bacteria levels in Kailua Bay. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The Environmental Protection Agency in December demanded that the city take action to more effectively treat the bacteria in the Kailua sewage with what’s called an “administrative order on consent.” The city has to take six different steps to improve those operations at the plant, and most of them have to be done within a year, according to O’Keefe.

That EPA order is different from the federal agency’s broader, 2010 consent decree that compels the city to drastically improve its sewage facilities across Oahu to better prevent spills and protect the marine environment. That consent decree, however, does not cover Kailua; it only covers the treatment plants at Honuliuli and Sand Island on the south shore.

The city is working on upgrades to the Kailua plant, O’Keefe said. His division has requested $34 million in the city’s 2024 budget to improve the handling of solid waste there. 

The city is also spending $11 million on a backup system to treat the sewage with ultraviolet light and assure enterococcus levels stay in check, he added.

That system should be done in 2025, O’Keefe said. “The Kailua plant is kind of constantly under refurbishment,” he added.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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