LIHUE — Kauai’s aging sewer system is in need of extensive renovations that will take years to complete and require a substantial amount of taxpayer money, according to county Department of Public Works officials.
While briefing the Public Works/Veterans Services Committee on cleanup and repair efforts following a November sewage main break in Wailua, Chief of Wastewater Management Jason Kagimoto told the committee public works employees noticed additional deficiencies in the sewage system while making repairs and said that sewage infrastructure all over the island is need of maintenance in order to prevent this type of spill from happening elsewhere.
Acting County Engineer Lyle Tabata said the sewer pipe was broken when a two-ton concrete-encased utility conduit — buried and abandoned decades ago — settled on top of the pipe as the county Department of Water excavated the surrounding area while rerouting a water line to the nearby Coco Palms resort.
Flow through the sewer main became obstructed by the abandoned concrete, causing pressure inside to build up, eventually blowing a manhole cover into the air as the first of 20,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled onto the surrounding landscape on the night of Nov. 1.
The county was forced to hire numerous outside contractors at a cost of roughly $500,000 to complete repairs, which were complicated a number of factors. The burst pipe was made of concrete-infused asbestos so specialists had to be hired to assist with removal. Also, the pipe ran under a heavily-trafficked intersection along Kuhio Highway, making it difficult and time consuming to access.
That half-a-million-dollar total does not include the costs incurred by the county to operate machinery or pay its employees overtime during the six days it took to replace the 150 feet of pipe and repave the portion of Leho Drive it ran underneath. And the money already spent is only the tip of the iceberg.
On top of logistical obstacles inherent in the rehabilitation of aging infrastructure, the county’s efforts were further exacerbated by inaccurate records-keeping. Tabata explained that the abandoned concrete which caused the problem was not known to public works officials. And as work progressed, it became apparent that the county’s schematics did not match the actual location of sewer lines.
“We had many incorrect recorded drawings and unidentified abandoned utilities,” Tabata said.
The Public Works Department is working on an island-wide sewer system review, expected to be completed in five years, and starting next fiscal year, Kagimoto said the department will be “looking for a big increase” in its annual budget in anticipation of necessary repairs.
“The goal is to keep doing this on an annual basis,” Kagimoto said, explaining that regular preventative maintenance is much less expensive than the construction costs of emergency repairs, which are “magnitudes higher” than the dollar amount expended if the work was done as a normal capital improvements project.
Councilman Ross Kagawa, who acts as chair for the Public Works/Veterans Services Committee, said that the county’s aging sewer system is not something that can be ignored regardless of the cost.
“On the budget end we will have to address it because we don’t want these things to happen,” Kagawa said. “We’re not a third-world country.”
Almost half of the wastewater spilled — roughly 8,000 gallons — ran downhill, eventually reaching the Wailua River, at which point the state health department was called to provide oversight.
Myron Honda, at the Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch, said the county was instructed to set up pathogen testing locations at sites along the river to assess the level of contamination and to post warning signs along the river accordingly.
“In any sewage spill we want people to take as many precautions as possible,” Honda said, but explained that the spilled sewage is no longer a public health concern. While potentially dangerous, bacteria in human fecal matter is generally only harmful for a few days in an open environment, after which time sunlight and exposure kill the pathogens.