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How Hawaii politics cleaned up our sewers

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"Are you going to fix the roof?" says the wife.

"Nope, not now," says the husband.

"Why not? You said it was a mess," the wife demands.

"Because it’s not raining," replies the husband.

For almost 30 years, that has been the story with Honolulu’s sewer system. We put stuff in the pipes, it leaks out; when it rains, it leaks and overflows. When it stops raining, we go back to ignoring it.

It used to be worse. The original sewage outfall was a plain pipe running off Honolulu. The sewage plume was visible to tourists flying into Honolulu, the gentrified folks up on hills above Honolulu turned their heads. Sailors called it "Marlboro Country" and made jokes about "blind mullets."

Then back when Frank Fasi was mayor, the city put in a new pipe that runs a mile and a half off shore and 200 feet deep. It worked OK. Scientists said it was better—but the federal government said not good enough. Put in secondary treatment like the rest of the country and, by the way, dig up all those sewage pipes that were installed around the time that Duke Kahanamoku was High Sheriff and fix them, too.

Mayor Mufi Hannemann was the last in a line of mayors dating back to Fasi who howled at the perceived injustice of it all.

Hannemann escalated the war, saying in 2009, "When you don’t feel the love, you have to put on the gloves."

"We’re not taking ‘No’ for an answer, not when we’re all facing a costly requirement for secondary treatment, not to mention millions of dollars in potential penalties," Hannemann said last year.

Snappy and memorable the quote may be—but "you don’t tug on Superman’s cape" and you don’t mess around the federal government with its battalions of Ivy League-trained environmental lawyers who dream of whittling down show-boating mayors.

Since becoming mayor, Hannemann has spent $10 million fighting the feds, the state and the environmentalists in court over the city’s leaky pipes and non-compliance outfall. He did that because complying with the federal government would cost $1.2 billion.

But, on Monday, the Earth shifted and the city, the feds and environmentalists announced a "proposed comprehensive agreement" ending the bickering and drawing up a plan to start fixing the pipes and going to secondary treatment.

You can thank politics for ending the stalemate, says Robert Harris, Hawaii Sierra Club director.

Hannemann now is clear to run for governor without opponents saying the EPA is serving him papers every time a manhole opens up.

And that’s how Hawaii politics cleaned up our sewers.

Richard Borreca writes on politics every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at


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