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Editorial | Island Voices

City Council was correct to cut funds for second sewage digester


Your July 10 editorial "Council acts carelessly on critical sewage project" is an inaccurate, misleading and unfair analysis of the Council’s attempts to address Oahu’s sewage problem.

» First, Synagro over-promised and under-delivered on the biosolids digester at Sand Island. It promised 6,000 tons of pelletized fertilizer — with one third to be given to the city and the remainder marketed to help offset costs.

To date, only half that tonnage has been produced. There were no sales of these pellets in the last six months of 2009, and sales were a meager $438 last year.

During this time, the city actually incurred a total loss of $170,457 when labor and transportation costs are factored in to the production of the pellets.

» Second, the safety of these pellets remains in question. A former Environmental Protection Agency microbiologist claims the treatment process for sludge does not kill the toughest pathogens.

In response, the city hired University of Hawaii researcher Roger Fujioka in 2004 to test the pellets. He could not determine whether the public’s health would be substantially affected by the land application of these pellets. Not surprisingly, it has been a tough sell convincing local farmers and nurseries to take these pellets.

» Third, our research shows that Synagro’s reputation is highly questionable. Documents provided in Council Communications 175 tell of a federal bribery scandal in Detroit and Philadelphia involving Synagro, several mayors, council members and their staff that resulted in convictions.

Given these reasons, the Council deleted $26 million in the fiscal 2012 budget for a second digester and voted 9-0 on a resolution urging the city to investigate alternative technologies for the beneficial reuse of sewage sludge other than the technology currently being used at Sand Island.

The main goal is to implement a new technology that will be less costly, more efficient and not compromise public health and safety.

The city administration responded by threatening to not issue permits for new sewer connections and to transport raw sewage to the Kailua, Honouliuli and Waianae treatment plants.

Media reports suggesting that the Council is responsible for the trucking are deceptive for two reasons. First, the city has already been trucking sewage to such facilities. Second, even if the Council had approved $26 million for a second digester, it would have taken at least two years to construct and the additional sludge would still have to be trucked by the city. The Council could not have prevented this outcome.

We commend Windward Oahu elected officials for insisting that public hearings be held in Kailua to discuss the impacts of trucking sludge. To this end, the Council’s Committee on Public Works will be holding an informational briefing on Aug. 3 to address the issue. If an environmental assessment is, indeed, required to truck additional sludge, then the city may be in violation.

We recently met with the administration and proposed a pilot program that would allow private companies to test their technologies at no cost to the city. Under this proposal, the excess sludge at Sand Island would be used to test their technologies and possibly eliminate the need to truck it elsewhere. This proposal was agreed to by the administration.

Looming on the horizon is the rail transit project, sewage upgrades required by the EPA consent decree and an increased CIP budget for the Board of Water Supply. All of these items combined amount to approximately $15 billion. Consequently, saving money and avoiding wasteful spending is paramount.

The Council is committed to informed, reasoned and bold decisions in dealing with our sewage treatment. The Council’s call for a pilot program is such a decision and shows we are acting responsibly, not carelessly. Pursuing alternative technologies clearly serves the city’s and taxpayers’ best interests.

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