Cesspools are poisoning our island

The Hawaii Department of Health did the right thing last week when it rescinded $467,000 in federal grant money that would have upgraded as many as 75 Hanalei cesspools to far more effective backyard treatment plants.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.

  1. Makaala Kaaumoana December 24, 2017 3:14 am Reply

    Mahalo Allan for this correct telling if the story of our wastewater situation on Kauai. We deeply regret the failure of our organization to fulfill the requirements and purpose of over a decade of work in Hanalei. The Hanalei Watershed Hui stands ready to assist our community in the critical work of restoring and protecting our environment for us and our future generations.

  2. Charlie Chimknee December 24, 2017 7:55 am Reply

    Aloha Mr. Parachini,

    I’m stuck between cesspools and a septic systems in my understanding, well, my knowledge of them

    Cesspool, 6’ diameter and 30’ deep: receiving water, soaps, oral hygiene aids, shaving and skin care additives and human excretions.

    A family or residents of 4 in a home taking a total of 6 showers a day using 300 gals daily;
    of kitchen and bath sink water @ 15 gals;
    and 16 flushes a day of both liquid and/or solid waste using 48 gals;
    washing machine 2 times a day at 10 gals a day…

    Is an approximate fair guess of 375 gallons of water a day per cesspool or about 1/2 of the article’s above guesstimate of approximate 750 gallons per day…and many homes have only 2 residents.

    A septic system has a holding tank which overflows into an approximate 75’ long leech field, which contents then eventually go to the soil to percolate by gravity downward to its destination good, harmless, or bad. Exception to this would be the seepage hitting a lava shelf or a waterway approximately 30’ deep;and the flow moves lateral, either slowly or rapidly if it joins running water in streams or rivers, or underground water channels.

    At the very least it would seem reasonable to count only the homes within range of only fresh or ocean water. Is that right? Are not some or most toxic human solid wastes “digested” or at least rendered non toxic by microbes living in the cesspools and leech fields? Human use of toxic chemicals applied to the body either internally or externally is a matter of halting their use which could be promoted by education or laws against their use or at least their ads or store restriction or online purchase. Anyway reality in capitalism, profit outweighs the sanity of protecting the environment or oneself, when it comes to the unnecessary use of chemicals for human bodies internally or externally.

    Is it more toxic for septic system leech field content near the ground surface for human exposure to toxins so near to the surface, like walking barefoot on the lawn above a leech field, or kids playing, on the lawn above the leech field, vs. a 30’ deep cesspool.

    How many waterways on KAUAI are 30’ deep and absorbing cesspool waste by way of sub surface flow from cesspool to waterway? What if a waterway is only 15’ deep? How much 30’ deep cesspool discharge would seep upward to the 15’ deep waterway? None?

    Sounds like it’s really only 1/2 as bad as the article claims, though there is not much difference between swimming in 1/2 bad …. compared to full bad … !

    Sort of like danged if you do, or danged if you don’t ! Though for your health’s sake, you’d best do the do at least twice a day or suffer toxic resorption in your own body. Read up on the Gastro-Colic Reflex.



  3. Danny k strickland December 24, 2017 9:27 am Reply

    Love your editorials and articles.

  4. RG DeSoto December 24, 2017 9:51 am Reply

    Mmmm….government force coupled with taxpayer subsidies. So those with cesspools are forced to install a septic system and given a “government” subsidy, while those that have already paid the 15-20k for a septic system get to pay twice–once for their system and again via the tax system. Great idea…if you’re one of the subsidized; not so good if you’re not.
    RG DeSoto

  5. MisterM December 24, 2017 10:04 am Reply

    Agreed. Outrageous this hasn’t been fixed decades ago. Had this amount of sewage been coming from some “evil” corporation, the hand-wringer crowd would be demanding heads should roll and burning effigies. But when it’s their waste polluting our ground and waters, all we hear is crickets. Shameful.

  6. Reverend Malama Robinson December 24, 2017 1:31 pm Reply

    Apparently you are unaware that replacing your cesspool is legally overdue and may cost upwards of $150,000.

    I was illegally evicted from my apartment in Koloa by the wallstreet holding company doing business as Koloa Hale Ohana LLC because I discovered raw sewage and many, many other health and safety violations that the acting property manager’s illegal onside agent would answer “that’s the price of paradise ” when inquiring about the repair or replacement of dangerous and illegal issues… that were making me and others sick!
    I then made the decision to call County and State Agencies and then some of the matters were addressed BUT The Garden Island Newspaper refused to come out and document the raw sewage that flows on top of the grounds up to 3′ deep then down the storm drains and into Waikomo Stream. The bacteria count is dangerously high according to the Health Department both at the low income housing property and at the mouth of the Waikomo Stream at Koloa Landing.

    I was forced into Homelessness and have been witness to extreme sewage spills in Hanalei Bay and Port Allen as well as off Mahalepuu and Kipu Shores all observations from aboard the Sailing Vessel Malama O Moana.

  7. Steve Martin December 24, 2017 2:13 pm Reply

    Yes the problem needs to be handled. Not by 2050 and not 5 yrs as well. I think the State should fund the removal of 270 cesspool systems affecting the bay. 270 systems at 30k each $8.1 million. Attach the costs to each system as a lien and establish additional payment to the property owners tax until paid. In the event of property selling, or a loan for anything pertaining to the property the lien becomes due in full. If the state doesn’t take an immediate stance on this
    Then it will never get done. It seems these people who opted out don’t give a”….”. And therefore a solution will need to become a lawful situation and then everyone looses.

  8. David Kennedy December 24, 2017 10:49 pm Reply

    All for it.


  9. David Kennedy December 24, 2017 10:50 pm Reply

    Get rid of all cesspools.

  10. Roger T December 26, 2017 1:23 pm Reply

    Is the government really listening? Will they take action? Can public pressure help make changes? I hope and pray so. I have to wonder how some people are going to extremes worrying about sunscreen chemicals when we have this sewage problem.

  11. Randall Roe December 30, 2017 6:33 pm Reply

    I agree that cesspools are not the best solution and have the potential to pollute surface water and subsurface drinking water.
    However, as with many things in life, the quantity is a key factor. First of all, Kauai has 29,800 housing units, not cesspools. The number of cesspools is 13,700. The implication, from reading your editorial is that, at least for the Kapaa/Wailua area, is that each house, on the average, is discharging about 760 gallons of human fecal waste per day and that we are drinking some of it. Seems pretty sensational, alarmist and shocking, which is maybe the intent. I would have to question this implication.
    The thing I know the most about is my house, in Wailua, so I looked at the numbers. Our total water usage for 2017, on the average, for 2 people, was 217 gallons per day. Most of this 217 gallons per day, which is already less that 1/3 of the DOH estimate, goes to outside watering, washing clothes and dishes, showering and cooking. We compost food waste. Only a fraction is human excrement. For instance, 5 toilet flushes per day per 2 people at 1.6 gal per flush is 16 gallons per day. This is a lot smaller amount than 760 gallons per day by a factor of almost 50.
    As for drinking human fecal coliforms in Wailua, tell your crude “friend” that the state report does not say that at all. Moreover, the Kauai County Dept of Water tests our water periodically and the results for 2016 say that “NONE DETECTED” for microbiological organisms. I am sure the County DOW would take issue with the statement that the water they are providing contains detectable fecal matter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, send us an email.