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Council acts carelessly on critical sewage project

One would have thought that elected leaders would have been scared straight by now, instead of letting sewage-treatment responsibilities get away from the city yet again.

But no. Despite the vivid memory picture of the Ala Wai sewage spill, despite warnings from the Environmental Protection Agency that led ultimately to a consent decree compelling treatment-plant improvements, it seems the City Council is backing away from critical improvements that should have been in place already. And it’s doing so at the unconscionable risk of putting the brakes on several developments that need the backing of a robust treatment plant.

The issue is that the digester — the system that removes pathogens from sewage sludge and produces fertilizer pellets — is over capacity at the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. Designs for an expansion are under way, but the Council removed $26 million in construction funds from the city’s 2012 budget.

This has forced the city to adopt a Plan B that’s anything but ideal. In the next few weeks, excess raw sewage from Sand Island will be trucked to treatment plants in Kailua and Ewa Beach, where neighborhood residents surely won’t appreciate the added disruption. But the administration has no choice. The EPA decree would bar any other kind of disposal because of its environmental effects.

City Councilman Romy Cachola, whose district includes Sand Island, is at the center of what looks like a Council snit. Last week he introduced a resolution that, inexplicably, passed quickly without any public testimony. Resolution 11-182 urges the city administration to investigate alternative technologies other than the digester now being operated by Synagro Technologies Inc.

But Cachola presents no compelling reason to pull the plug on the operation now. The resolution uncritically cites one study disputing the safety of the treated sludge, hardly a sufficient basis to dump a technology that’s in wide use nationally. Tim Steinberger, director of the Department of Environmental Services, said the study in question referenced a different level of treatment than the one used here. That’s disturbing. So now the Council is basing its decisions on comparisons of apples and oranges?

Steinberger said the $26 million project will need bond financing, so he plans to resubmit his request before the Council in the next budget cycle. However, the resolution is a statement of Council policy and should be rescinded months in advance of that. City taxpayers, who should be watching this melodrama with some alarm, can hope that cooler heads will prevail and that the Council will rethink its illogical stance.

Further, this latest episode has put the Council’s rather cavalier attitude about process on display. The proposal to yank the funds for the equipment occurred shortly before the bill’s third reading; similarly, the resolution came up for a vote without a single committee referral, and had no testimony submitted. Important decisions on city functions should be made after careful consideration. This, by contrast, was hasty, even flippant.

The current Council members may believe they should be entrusted with such important matters — and, judging by the recent tug-of-war over the rail project, that’s what they do believe. Even so, the handling of the latest sewage treatment challenge is Exhibit A in the case against them.

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