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EPA fines Hawaii County for failure to complete wastewater treatment facility design by deadline

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today said it has fined the County of Hawaii $28,500 for its failure to meet a deadline to complete the design of the Pahala Wastewater Treatment Facility.

EPA said that in June 2017, the county had agreed to close five large-capacity cesspools serving the Pahala and Naalehu communities, in order to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. The county was to replace them with a wastewater treatment plant approved by the Hawaii Department of Health, and the design was to have been completed by July 24 of this year.

EPA issued a notice of noncompliance on Aug. 17, followed by a demand for payment of the penalty in early November.

“County of Hawaii has failed to meet its legal commitment to modernize wastewater infrastructure,” said EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Director of the Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division, Amy Miller, in a news release. “EPA expects the County to expeditiously construct the Pahala Wastewater Treatment Facility to protect drinking water and coastal resources on the Big Island.”

In a statement, Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth said further environmental review was needed due to unforeseen circumstances.

“Our administration has been working diligently with the EPA and the community to close the large capacity cesspools in Pahala and Naalehu,” said Roth in a statement. “However, upon re-evaluation of the project and discovery in April of a more extensive lava tube system than previously anticipated, we consciously decided to do further environmental review to select a wastewater treatment plant that will reduce environmental and fiscal concerns.”

Roth continued with: “We understood then that the decision would result in fines, and we chose to move forward as it is in the community’s best interest to create permanent solutions rather than temporary fixes. That said, we understand the seriousness of the fine and will continue to work hard to meet the remaining compliance deadlines – so long as we may do so without jeopardizing the health and safety of our residents and the environments in which they live. The bottom line is that the new WWTP will yield reduced costs and reduced environmental impacts, far outweighing the current fines. We’d like to thank the community of Kau for their continued support and input as we work through this issue together.”

Under the agreement, approximately 272 properties served by the large capacity cesspools — and another 95 that are not — in Pahala and Naalehu are to be connected to the new county wastewater treatment plant.

Cesspools are basically underground holes used for the disposal of human waste, and are used more widely in Hawaii than in any other state, according to the EPA.

They collect and discharge untreated raw sewage into the ground, where disease-causing pathogens and harmful chemicals can contaminate groundwater, streams and the ocean. At the same time, groundwater provides 95% of all local water supply in Hawaii, said the EPA.

Large-capacity cesspools — defined by the EPA as serving multi-unit residential dwellings such as townhouse complexes and apartment buildings or 20 or more persons per day in non-residential dwellings such as rest areas — were banned in 2005 under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Since the 2005 ban, more than 3,600 large-capacity cesspools in Hawaii have been closed, according to the EPA. However, hundreds remain in operation.

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