Concerns about the proliferation of cesspools and their impact on nearshore waters and our drinking water supply date back more than a century.

For decades, scientists and health officials in Hawaii had been warning of the danger that cesspools presented to public health in an island state almost entirely dependent on ground water.

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There was the issue of untreated waste from the underground pits contaminating vegetable gardens and taro patches in Honolulu in 1911. The incident in 1948 when people were warned to stop fishing in Hilo Bay because of overflowing cesspools leaking into the harbor. Concerns were raised in 1963 that new cesspools would be a problem with the population boom the state was experiencing.

Then came the highly publicized cesspool crisis at Hanauma Bay, a prime tourist attraction and one of the crown jewels of Oahu.

The Honolulu Advertiser wrote a series of articles in 1982 about cesspool problems at Hanauma Bay. (Screenshot/

In 1982, officials closed Hanauma Bay for nearly a week because of problems with an overflowing cesspool system at the park — an issue that city employees had apparently known about for years.

Stories about the sewage problems at Hanauma Bay dominated the news, and appear to be the start of a turning point in public awareness about Hawaii’s over-reliance on using underground holes to dispose of untreated human waste.

The terms “cesspool” and “contamination” show up in 27 Hawaii newspaper stories between 1970 and 1979. In the following decade, the number of stories with those key words more than tripled.

In 1988, state health officials called for a ban on new cesspool construction, but a search of Hawaii’s newspaper archives shows just how difficult putting a ban into place — and figuring out what to do about the tens of thousands of existing cesspools — would prove to be.

Four decades after the first serious efforts to eliminate cesspools in the state began, the state is still working to keep cesspool sewage out of Hawaii’s drinking water and away from its beaches.

‘A Health Menace’

The controversy over cesspools is just one part of Hawaii’s long struggle over how to handle sewage.

In the mid-1960s, the city was pumping an average of 44 million gallons of raw sewage a day into the ocean offshore from Sand Island. The military was dumping another 10 million to 12 million gallons a day into Pearl Harbor, the Honolulu Advertiser reported.

“These problems were created because Honolulu failed to realize quickly enough that it was becoming a large city,” the Honolulu Star-Bulletin wrote in a 1963 story about Honolulu Mayor Neal Blaisdell’s proposal to spend $6.2 million improving the city’s sewage system.

While the city grappled with what it would take to build enough treatment plants to address the flow of raw sewage into the ocean, officials were clear on one thing: The answer to the sewage problem was most certainly not cesspools.

Honolulu struggled to keep up with demand for cesspool pumping, the Honolulu Advertiser wrote in 1964. (Screenshot/

Cesspools might have done the trick when Oahu was mostly rural, but they wouldn’t work as the solution for a booming metropolis. The state was having enough trouble keeping up with pumping the 35,000 cesspools on Oahu — 13,137 of which were built with permits approved between 1954 and 1964.

Even though cesspools were already considered an old-fashioned sewage solution in 1964, health officials were reluctant to ban them outright. If the state banned cesspools in areas without existing sewage lines, rural development would halt, health officials said in a 1964 Honolulu Advertiser story.

By 1965, developers of large subdivisions were required to “build temporary secondary sewage treatment plants” that would eventually be connected to a main system, The Honolulu Advertiser wrote. Cesspools were permitted in smaller subdivisions, but the hope was that too would change.

“Cesspools are outmoded, unsanitary, and a health menace,” the head of engineering at the health department told the paper.

Efforts were made during the 1960s and 1970s to increase regulation of cesspools, limiting where they could be built, and how. But many of those proposals faced stiff opposition from the construction industry and cesspools continued to proliferate across the islands — even after the passage of the 1972 federal Water Pollution Control Act, which required Hawaii to create a statewide waste treatment plan.

In 1976, 95% of people living on the Big Island relied on cesspools, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported.

‘Significant Contamination’

In 1960, Hawaii was one of only three states that had no reported health problems tied to water contamination, scientists pointed out in a 1970 study covered by The Honolulu Advertiser.

The increase of cesspools and septic tanks in the state, scientists said, meant there was no guarantee it would stay that way for long.

In 1982, city officials closed Hanauma Bay after a woman who had been snorkeling there had to to seek medical treatment for diarrhea caused by bacteria. Several friends who joined her on the beach excursion also reported stomach problems.

In 1970, scientists concluded that Hawaii’s cesspools posed a possible threat to the state’s drinking water. (Screenshot/

Water samples at the bay showed low fecal coliform counts, but city workers found indisputable evidence that something was wrong at the beach: signs that the cesspool had overflowed at high tide.

The park was closed for several days, repairs were completed, and pledges were made to pump the cesspools at the park more regularly. But stories about cesspools and water contamination at beaches across the state — including Hanauma Bay — continued to show up regularly in coming years.

In late 1988, the state Department of Health put forth a proposal banning new cesspools on Oahu, severely limiting them on other islands, and banning construction of them statewide by 1990. The department’s goal at the time was to eradicate cesspool use in the state by the year 2000, the Honolulu Advertiser reported.

There was growing concern in the DOH that cesspools would contaminate water supplies, and there already was “significant contamination of the coastal waters on all of the islands because of cesspools close to shorelines.”

“Hawaii is one of only four states that still allows the use of cesspools,” then-Deputy Health Director Bruce Anderson, told the Advertiser. “Yet we depend more than any other state on groundwater for our drinking water supplies.”

A boy uses tires and boards to jump across open cesspools in a Wahiawa neighborhood in this 1976 Honolulu Star-Bulletin photo. Hawaii has been struggling with what to do about aging cesspools for generations. (Screenshot/

The health department announcement set off a rush of property owners trying to build cesspools and a push from some real estate agents to get people to sell remote properties not serviced by a sewage line.

By the end of 1989, implementation of those rules on the Big Island had been “postponed indefinitely,” the Tribune-Herald reported, and cesspools would still be allowed on the vast majority of the island.

A federal ban on large cesspools appeared to have more impact.

By the mid-2000s, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was slapping Hawaii with big fines for continuing to operate large cesspools, including at schools and affordable housing developments.

But even federal regulations did not prove enough.

“Many individuals now whine and cry over the recent crackdown by the EPA over the thousands of illegal cesspools in Hawaii,” a reader wrote the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in 2005. “Come off it, people. A cesspool is a disgusting pile of human waste polluting ground water and the ocean … There is nothing you can say to justify continuing to operate one of these.”

In 2015, when the EPA issued about $1.5 million in fines to cesspool owners in Hawaii, around 800 new cesspools a year were being constructed on Maui, Molokai and Hawaii island — despite a quarter of drinking water wells in the Keaau area testing positive for fecal indicator bacteria.

It wasn’t until 2016 that a statewide ban on new cesspools was signed into law. The move was opposed by nearly a dozen state lawmakers from neighbor islands because of the cost it would impose on property owners. A year later, the legislature passed a law requiring property owners in the state to replace their existing cesspools with better sewage technology by 2050.

If everyone in the state meets that deadline, Hawaii will finally be rid of cesspools — a full half a century after the original goal set by the health department.

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