Two years after the Department of Health warned residents to stay out of Kahaluu Lagoon and the channel leading to Kaneohe Bay because tests indicated raw sewage from cesspools was likely polluting the water, there’s no indication that the water quality will improve anytime soon.
Health officials say that while hundreds of cesspools in the area are likely causing the high bacteria counts, they are still studying the issue. Meanwhile, a statewide effort to provide incentives to homeowners to switch out their cesspools by offering tax credits is falling far short of expectations, and any effort to connect areas in Kahaluu to the city’s sewage system is likely more than a decade out.
State Rep. Jarrett Keohokalole, who represents the area, said he’s disappointed at the slow pace of addressing the problem. He said it seems clear that homeowners, many of whom have lived in the area for generations and don’t have a lot of money, will have to convert their cesspools, and that the state needs to do more to help them financially.
“There comes a point when you know enough about what the problem is that it is time to start looking at how you are going to fix it,” said Keohokalole (D, Kahaluu-Ahuimanu-Kaneohe).
Health officials began testing the water in 2014 after canoe paddlers, boaters and fishermen complained of rashes and skin infections that they suspected were linked to the waterway.
The results were alarming. Bacteria counts used to gauge the presence of sewage were as high in some places as water samples taken from the Ala Wai Canal in 2006 when city officials dumped 48 million gallons of raw sewage into the waterway after a pipe burst in Waikiki.
There are more than 700 cesspools in the watershed area around Kahaluu, according to the Health Department.
Untreated sewage is linked to illnesses such as hepatitis A and leptospirosis, a painful gastrointestinal illness, and can cause skin infections such as staph. Health officials also say that the sewage from cesspools, which are essentially holes in the ground that discharge untreated waste, can pose a risk to drinking water sources, freshwater streams and coastal reefs.
The Health Department has been collaborating with University of Hawaii scientists to study the water contamination. One study, which is still undergoing peer review and is expected to be released soon, found that cesspools, and possibly leaking sewage pipes, are contributing to the high bacteria counts in the area, according to Marek Kirs, a researcher with the UH Water Resources Research Center. On a positive note, he said that there was no indication that the wastewater systems are contaminating drinking water sources.
Other UH scientists and researchers, led by Craig Glenn, plan to conduct additional studies through 2018 to track where groundwater is discharging.
Glenn said that while the area cesspools appear to be the “smoking gun,” he could not say for certain that they are the cause of the pollution, a position echoed by Health Department officials.
“As a department we cannot say definitively that we know that it is,” said Sina Pruder, head of the Health Department’s Wastewater Branch. “We are saying we are just looking at anything else that could be contributing to the water quality issues. It just appears that cesspools are the only thing that are probably causing the water quality issues.”
Pruder said that the department still needs more data and is reviewing Kirs’ report.
Still, she said, the Health Department is moving forward in trying to address the problem of cesspools not only around Kahaluu, but also statewide. Hawaii has about 90,000 cesspools, more than any other state, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Pruder said the department convened a cesspool working group that has been meeting monthly since June to discuss the problem.
Few take advantage of tax credits
Gov. David Ige signed new Health Department rules in March that ban the construction of new cesspools statewide. The rules were a less stringent version of previously proposed rules that sought to slowly phase out cesspools by requiring homes near water sources to be upgraded to septic tanks or other treatment systems when they were sold.
The rules signed by Ige also implemented a tax credit program that allows owners of properties near a shoreline, stream or wetland to receive a $10,000 tax credit for switching out their cesspools. At the time, Ige said that the state was pursuing the “carrot approach” to the cesspool problem.
But far fewer homeowners than hoped have been taking advantage of the tax credits.
Under the program, up to $5 million in credits can be issued annually through 2020 — an amount that can cover up to 500 cesspool upgrades a year. But as of mid-November the Health Department had issued only three tax credits, according to Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo.
In total the department had received 24 applications for the tax credit, most of which still need final documentation, such as construction inspection reports and receipts, before they can be approved. Two of the applications have been denied.
Of the applications received, 11 were for systems on Oahu, six for Hawaii island, six for Kauai and one for Maui.
“We would really like to see more,” said Okubo.
Okubo said that one limitation of the tax credit is that it can be used only to cancel out a tax liability, so a property owner would have to owe at least $10,000 in taxes in order to fully take advantage of the incentive.
Systems can also end up costing more than the value of the credit. Okubo said the average cost of putting in a septic tank system is between $10,000 and $25,000.
Not a city priority
Pruder said that the Health Department had also hoped that the city would prioritize connecting areas of Kahaluu to the city sewage system, which could eliminate about 500 of the area cesspools.
“It would cover the majority of the cesspools, but when we met with the city in September, it didn’t appear that it would be a high priority for them,” said Pruder. She said the city didn’t plan to extend sewer lines in the area until 2028 at the earliest.
City Environmental Services Director Lori Kahikina told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the city focused on mandates included in the $5 billion consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Health Department, which outlines extensive requirements for upgrading the island’s sewage system.
“Adding additional sewer lines in Kahaluu to our existing system is a future goal once our consent decree projects are completed, as the Department of Environmental Services must remain cognizant of how much ratepayers can handle at any given time,” said Kahikina in an emailed statement.
She said the department didn’t have an accurate estimate of how much the sewer lines would cost, but expected it would be in the tens of millions of dollars.
Keohokalole, the state representative, said that regardless of whether the city puts in a sewage system, there are still going to be people in the valley who have cesspools who likely won’t be able to cover the costs of converting, and that the state should be looking at better solutions. He noted that even homeowners who can qualify for the tax credit still have to figure out how to cover the upfront costs.
“How long are you going to wait before we start trying to figure out how to help these people convert out?” he said. “We know that they are going to have to.”