A proposal to install sewer lines for a section of Ewa Beach is shaping up as a litmus test for the effort as homeowners say they need more help covering the costs.

Honolulu officials are planning to connect more houses to the city’s main sewer system, which they say will help residents meet a state mandate to switch from cesspools to alternative forms of wastewater management by 2050.

It comes with a price: once the sewer line is installed, city law requires homeowners to connect their houses to it, which officials estimate would cost each household between $8,500 and $10,000. The city says it’s a more affordable option than the alternative of installing septic tanks. But many homeowners say it’s still too expensive.

The issue has come to the fore with a recent city proposal to install sewer lines for about 976 homes in a section of Ewa Beach in West Oahu. 

Honouliuli water recyling facility wastewater treatment plant ewa beach kapolei file stock
Proximity to the Honouliuli Water Recycling Facility — as well as a concentrated area of slightly less than 1,000 homes still unconnected from the city sewage system — makes this section of Ewa Beach prime territory for a sewer improvement district, said Honolulu Department of Environmental Services director Roger Babcock. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Area resident Rob Umiamaka said dropping almost $10,000 on sewer connections would be infeasible for him and a lot of his neighbors.

“Oh, you really talking about pricing people out. I mean, lot of people, they can’t afford that – especially in this area,” he said.

Looming Deadline

Cesspools – raw-sewage disposal systems – were for a long time Hawaii’s go-to method for storing household wastewater from toilets, sinks and laundry. But growing concerns about environmental pollution and water contamination led the state in 2016 to ban new cesspools in the islands.

Then a 2017 law said that current cesspools must be converted to more sanitary waste collection systems by 2050 — an expensive endeavor.

Residents could upgrade their cesspools to septic tanks, which starts at about $25,000. Or, as some officials are proposing, they could wait for the city to lay sewer lines in front of their houses and then connect to those. 

This would be less costly by comparison, requiring most residents to hire somebody to fill their cesspools and somebody to connect their wastewater systems to the city’s, since it involves changes to their personal property rather than to city-owned property.

But it’s still a lot of money for many people – and few options exist for relief.

Expensive To Convert

The City and County of Honolulu is trying to implement sewer improvement districts that would allow individual households to connect to the main sewer line. Targeted areas specified in city budget documents include Kailua, Kaneohe and Ewa Beach.

Sewer improvement districts are basically areas where the city wants to extend its sewer system, which currently does not reach every part of Oahu. About 11,000 cesspools help fill in the gaps.

But the process of making a sewer improvement district requires many steps. The city’s Department of Environmental Services counts 23 in its July presentation to the City Council, adding up to a minimum of three years before shovels can start digging.

These steps include things like presentations to the neighborhood board, receiving a resolution of approval from the council and acquiring a contractor to do the construction work. 

Homeowners in this modest section of Ewa Beach would have a particularly hard time paying to connect to a proposed city sewer line, residents say. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2023)

A draft resolution of approval for the section of Ewa Beach behind James Campbell High School was introduced this summer and was heard during council hearings. However, it was put on hold pending more community outreach after it faced opposition from Ewa Sen. Kurt Fevella who cited taxpayer and homeowner cost.

“They go after Ewa Beach residents who are in their seventies, and the oldest resident there is in their 90s,” Fevella said. “How are they going to afford anything like that on a fixed income?”

He also took issue with the fact that some people who have already converted to septic tanks will have to switch to the sewage line if the city’s plan goes through. City law exempts those people from paying wastewater fees for 25 years, though some feel that’s not enough consolation.

Fevella, a Republican, wasn’t in state office in 2017, so he had no part in the initial bill mandating the conversions. In a phone interview, he said he intends to push to modify it when the next legislative session starts in January, although that will be a hard sell in Democrat-led Hawaii.

Instead of mandating that all cesspools in the state be converted, Fevella said, it might make sense to only mandate conversions for cesspools closer to the ocean where the risk of environmental harm is greater. Roger Babcock, director of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services, contends that risk still could exist to the larger environment, including reefs.

Babcock said the Ewa Beach area was singled out because of its proximity to the Honouliuli Water Recycling Facility as well as a concentration of homes that aren’t connected to the city sewage system, making it an ideal spot for an improvement district.

That’s little consolation to homeowners. Umiamaka, who grew up in Kaneohe and works in the state sheriff’s K9 unit, bought a house in this section of Ewa Beach in 2015 because of the area’s relative affordability. His cousin moved next door a few years later for the same reason, he said. 

House prices are modest here compared to neighboring census tracts. The most recently available data shows that the median price of an owner-occupied home was about $475,000 – noticeably lower than the surrounding medians, which were all above $600,000. 

The neighborhood is mostly Filipino and is heavily populated by families.

Umiamaka likes the neighborhood. He knows his neighbors. He commutes early to avoid traffic bound for the airport, where he’s often posted for work. And in his free time, he likes to freedive off nearby Puuloa Beach Park.

He said he understands the need to comply with environmental standards, but feels that many people won’t be able to pay the additional cost of connecting to the sewer line.

Resident Francis Hapenney said that he wouldn’t be able to pay for connecting to the city’s sewer line out of pocket. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2023)

Fellow area resident Francis Hapenney, who was a mechanic in the military, taught at James Campbell High School’s automotive shop and now substitute teaches, agrees that the cost would be hard to swallow.

“I’m going to sit over there and try to get a loan to cover this. That’s number one. Now, I got to pay that loan back. Plus I got to pay my mortgage. Plus I got to pay all my utilities,” said Hapenney. 

It’s not just the cost to individual homeowners. Laying down the necessary infrastructure would cost city taxpayers about $50 million, according to officials. While sewer improvement districts aren’t new, it has been at least a couple decades since Honolulu last implemented one, according to Babcock.

“It is expensive to expand the sewer system,” he said.

Potential For More State Assistance

Babcock said the traditional model for sewer improvement districts is to have homeowners pay to connect to the system. But spurred by testimony at the City Council hearings over the summer, he is talking to state officials about finding ways to cover the expense “as a way to get their mandate going.” 

This would be a relatively small investment on the state’s part, he said. While the city’s new infrastructure would amount to investing about $50,000 per household, the state’s portion would be about $10,000 per household. 

“That’s sort of something we need to start talking about with this next legislative session,” said Babcock.

Lawmakers would not necessarily need to start from scratch.

Francis Hapenney’s dog Koa sits over his household’s cesspool in the front yard. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2023)

One bill this year tried to give cesspool-converting residents an income tax credit, as well as establish priority areas for each county, create a dedicated cesspool conversion section within the Department of Health and think about a public education campaign.

Introduced by Rep. Nadine Nakamura, House Bill 1396 reached the final step before passage: conference committee, where senators and representatives hammer out their differences over things like wording and how much money to allocate. 

But like many other bills, it was doomed because finance committees did not sign off on it by the legislative deadline.

Applications for a pilot program that gave out cesspool conversion grants opened up in March of this year. State lawmakers had set aside money in 2022 for the program, which would act as rebates to reimburse residents in priority conversion areas after they pay for conversions themselves. 

The program was successful, if short-lived, since the application list and waitlist closed shortly after opening. About 250 cesspools are being converted through it – leaving about 83,000 to go.

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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