The Hawaii Department of Health did the right thing last week when it rescinded $467,000 in federal grant money that would have upgraded as many as 75 Hanalei cesspools to far more effective backyard treatment plants.
With the state’s action, even the four property owners who had signed up for the program just after the funding ran out at the end of November will not get the $15,000 each in federal assistance for which they would have qualified.
The health department found that, under applicable rules, money not claimed by Nov. 30 had to be returned to Washington. This kind of federal money has a strong “use it or lose it” component. Kauai didn’t use it, so we lost it. Fair and simple.
The failure is not the fault of the Hanalei Watershed Hui, which had tried valiantly, if in vain, to attract participants since April of last year. But, despite pleas of every imaginable sort — including repeated postings in social media and publicity in such places as this newspaper — from the hui, not a single property owner signed up in time.
They failed to participate even though their properties are within 750 feet of the ocean and their wastewater is slowly seeping under the beach and into Hanalei Bay. They failed to sign up even though, in many cases, they have the financial means to install new treatments systems, even without a subsidy.
This is especially vexing in light of release of a new state health department report on wastewater quality and the urgent need to replace Hawaii’s 88,000 cesspools — more than any other state — by the time of a legislatively required deadline of 2050. In fact, 2050 is nowhere near soon enough and a growing number of legislators understand that the deadline has to be moved up.
The real story in the report can be found on pages 4 and 5 of the executive summary, which point out that Kauai has 29,800 of these cesspools, of which only 270 are in Hanalei. Far bigger offenders are Poipu/Koloa, with 3,600 cesspools that discharge 2.6 million gallons of scarcely treated sewage per day and 2,900 in Kapaa/Wailua, which are the source of 2.2 million gallons per day. Read that again: The two areas discharge 4.8 million gallons each day.
Worse still, though, is that the state has identified four priority levels for the urgency of replacement of all cesspools. “Category 3” of this risk scheme is cesspools near “sensitive state waters or coastal ecosystems (coral reefs, impaired waterways, waters with endangered species, or other vulnerabilities).” That’s Hanalei and that’s bad enough.
But then there is “Category 2,” which includes Poipu, Koloa, Kapaa and Wailua. It’s titled “Potential to Impact Drinking Water.” The description notes dryly that “cesspools in these areas have a high potential to impact these sources.”
The four towns in question account for Kauai’s largest population center, Kapaa, and its major Southside resort area.
This prompted a friend of mine who follows the minutiae of waste water and effluent treatment on Kauai to make the following observation, which I have sanitized slightly because this is a family newspaper: “The state report says, essentially, that, while Hanalei may be swimming in ****, Poipu, Koloa, Kappa and Wailua are drinking ****.” The actual word disguised as “****” would be readily familiar to you as slang for untreated human solid waste.
This can’t go on. Our cesspools are slowly poisoning the island. The situation is not as dire away from the ocean as it is near the sand, but it’s a problem all of us must take responsibility for and try to address. And if you’re curious, I’m guilty, too. My house has a cesspool and I and my wife are just as obligated to replace it within the next few years as anyone else.
The Hanalei program would have offered people who signed up as much as $15,000 in cash assistance to install sophisticated technology that, in a device roughly the size of a septic tank, discharges near drinking quality water. Now, Hanalei is an area of affluence, with many wealthy property owners and vacation rentals in high-end houses right near the beach.
These owners are in a position to take action themselves, but, even with $15,000 dangled in front of them, they have refused to do so. Many reside most, or all, of the time on the Mainland. Other owners operate their properties as vacation rentals — legally and illegally — and see a cesspool upgrade as an unacceptable expense and an interruption of their revenue streams.
And many owners, of course, are regular people of ordinary means for whom the nearly $30,000 total cost of one of these new systems is beyond reach.
A couple of things need to happen:
First, the Legislature should seriously consider moving up the 2050 deadline to eliminate cesspools everywhere in Hawaii much earlier. Even more dramatically for properties in the three highest risk categories.
To make cesspool replacement more affordable, the state could create wastewater treatment districts. That does not mean a central sewage treatment plant. Rather, it means a local requirement for everyone to upgrade more or less at the same time. Under the aegis of such a district, low interest loans and even cash assistance could be made available. This would take enactment of a law that does not currently exist.
Second, upgrading of vacation rental property cesspools should be required very, very soon, with no exceptions permitted. My view, for what it’s worth, is that five years is not an unreasonable timeframe. It is also reasonable to change state law and county ordinances to require that whenever a home is sold, it must be upgraded to eliminate the cesspool before the transaction can close. This is not my original idea and it’s not, by any means, a new one.
Really, this is about taking responsibility for our island. Allowing human waste to percolate into our rivers, streams and the ocean is undeniably a gigantic risk to the welfare of the land and waters surrounding us. Unlike some other issues about environmental risk, there is no controversy over this one.
Cesspools — mine included — have to go, as soon as possible.
Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.