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City plans to transfer Sand Island sewage elsewhere

By B.J. Reyes

LAST UPDATED: 1:51 a.m. HST, Jul 9, 2011

With the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant reaching capacity, the city plans to truck raw sewage sludge to waste-water treatment plants in Ewa Beach, Waianae and Kailua as a temporary solution.

How long the sludge would be hauled is unknown, as the city administration and City Council debate the best, most cost-effective way for expanding the Sand Island treatment plant. Failure to come up with a solution could lead to a delay or moratorium on construction projects from Hawaii Kai to Halawa.

City Environmental Services Director Tim Steinberger has said hauling could begin by the end of the month.

It would require three 5,000-gallon trucks making two runs each per day from Sand Island to treatment facilities in Honouliuli, Waianae and Kailua. It will cost an estimated $1.8 million the first year. Officials say a one-day test run would be made first, with the results monitored for a week to determine whether there is any adverse impact to receiving sites and surrounding areas.

Hauling the sludge is only a temporary fix while the city seeks to expand the Sand Island plant and build a second 100-foot-high, egg-shaped digester, which processes the sludge through a method known as "in-vessel bioconversion," and is capable of producing fertilizer pellets from the sludge.

The city had begun design and planning for the new digester and sought $26 million for it this year, but Councilman Romy Cachola worked to get the funds deleted from the budget out of concerns over the plant's operator, Synagro Hawaii, and safety issues raised about the fertilizer pellets.

Cachola also was behind a resolution, unanimously adopted Wednesday by the Council, requiring the city to examine alternative technologies for treating sewage sludge and report back to the Council within 90 days.

The resolution refers to a microbiologist's study that found the treatment process does not kill all pathogens in the sludge, therefore compromising public safety if the fertilizer pellets were to be used in public parks, as is planned. It also questions the reputation of the operator and suggests that other technologies could be safer and more cost-effective.

"It's trying to save taxpayers' money and see if there is a more efficient technology out there," Cachola said.

Steinberger described the resolution as an "anti-Synagro" measure that questioned whether the bioconversion process was legitimate. He also defended Synagro Hawaii as a good corporate partner locally while acknowledging that the parent company, Texas-based Synagro, has addressed issues by its previous owners, including a bribery scandal several years ago.

"From the way I read it, it's more about why we should not be engaging the company Synagro Hawaii to be treating and operating our facility and not so much against the issue of what are the alternative technologies out there that we can be looking at," Steinberger said.

Cachola also criticized the Environmental Services Department for beginning the design and planning of the second digester without first having the funds approved by the Council, saying it appeared the administration viewed the Council as a "rubber stamp."

Steinberger said the advanced design and planning is a common industry practice.

"I do not assume this Council will rubber-stamp anything," he said. "It is always a risk. However, I need to minimize my risks as well."

The overriding concern is managing the Sand Island plant and finding an interim solution — such as hauling — until the second digester or any alternative technology could come online. The second digester was expected to be operational by late 2013.

Without some type of solution, the delay could lead to a moratorium on construction projects in the urban core of Honolulu.

"If I'm at risk of violating the Clean Water Act because our solid handling facility cannot take any more solids, then yes, I'm going to have to take certain actions, after consulting with the mayor, such as holding up any more permits for a (sewer line) connection until we have something online," Steinberger said.

Maurice Morita, a labor union lobbyist, testified Wednesday that unions do not have a problem with the City Council asking that alternative technologies be studied, but they are concerned over the potential for construction projects to be stalled.

"This is a concern about any kind of construction project from Hawaii Kai to Aiea," he said. "We want to make sure that the projects that are planned can move along."

In approving the resolution, Councilman Nestor Garcia said that despite their differences, the administration and Council would have to find ways to work together while also examining alternative technologies.

"The reality is we need to look at some other technologies," Garcia said. "Never mind that we have these differences of opinion about Synagro. Let's get past that now.

"We need to take a look at another technology, and I'll be damned if we're going to stop processing permits in downtown Honolulu while we're squabbling over what kind of technology we're going to do."

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