Smoky Mountain Helicopters fined for cesspool by EPA

HANAPEPE — After a year of investigations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken an enforcement action against Smoky Mountain Helicopters, Inc., aka Maverick Helicopters, to force closure of a large-capacity cesspool that the EPA said the company was operating illegally at Port Allen Airport (Burns Field).

The EPA is expecting to collect $45,000 in fines.

“Island water resources are vulnerable to pollution from large-capacity cesspools,” EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator John Busterud said. “EPA will continue our efforts to close the remaining such systems on Kaua‘i.”

Amy Miller, EPA Region 9 enforcement and compliance assurance division director, said the cesspool is within a mile of Salt Pond Beach Park and the Hawaiian salt beds.

“On Aug. 1, 2019, a cultural practitioner from the Hui Hana Pa‘akai o Hanapepe community organization contacted EPA regarding an alleged large-capacity cesspool, which can be a source of significant pollution and is illegal, at the Port Allen Airport,” Miller said. “As a result, EPA conducted an inspection of the facility on Aug. 14, 2019.”

President Malia Nobrega-Olivera of the Hui Hana Pa‘akai o Hanapepe said she was relieved to hear the news of the EPA action, and has more to celebrate for the future of the next generations of salt-makers and the Westside community.

“As I texted our county council and state rep, to me it’s a win and it’s a step in the right direction,” Nobrega-Olivera said. “It’s not only them, it’s the Department of Transportation that is allowing a lot of this to happen, so in Aug. 2019 on behalf of our salt-maker organization that my grandfather started in 1964, I wrote a letter to EPA requesting that an investigation be done because there was an un-permitted restroom facility that utilized a cesspool there.”

“We sent that letter to the Department of Health, the County Council, and to our mayor,” Nobrega-Olivera said.

In June 2019, Nobrega-Olivera said the Kaua‘i Planning Commission was having a zoning-permit hearing for a permit requested by Smoky Mountain Helicopters.

“We went in full force as a hui and also as a community, where people flew in from other islands, seeking support in the protection,” Nobrega-Olivera said.

Nobrega-Olivera said when her hui brought up the cesspool to EPA, within days they got word that the EPA would start its investigation.

According to the EPA, in 2018 their inspectors found a large-capacity cesspool associated with Smoky Mountain Helicopters at a leased airport hangar.

Smoky Mountain Helicopters operated the cesspool, which serviced the restroom in the airport’s maintenance hangar. Under the EPA compliance order announced on Dec. 16, Smoky Mountain Helicopters has agreed to close the cesspool no later than April 30, 2021.

“We were really pleased that at least something was happening,” Nobrega-Olivera said.

Nobrega-Olivera said she is also grateful for the West Kaua‘i Community Plan that was passed by the county’s Planning Commission last month and signed by Mayor Derek Kawakami earlier this month.

“The West Kaua‘i Community Plan is a bigger part of the Kaua‘i General Plan,” Nobrega-Olivera said. “I advocated the closure on behalf of the hui again, to include in this plan that there be a closure of this airport facility, and this got a pass.

“There was support from our County Council, and the plan is moving forward. It sets up guidelines for the next 20 years. For us that is a really big win. It shows that as a community on the Westside and for generations to come, this is where we are right now. There is no reason for it, not just for the salt-makers but for our community, too.”

According to a TGI report on Dec. 14, the plan addresses land use, development policy, transportation, resiliency, shared spaces, economic development, heritage resources, housing and infrastructure, by identifying actions, programs, partnerships, goals and objectives throughout the Westside.

What’s next for Hui Hana Pa‘akai o Hanapepe? (SUBHEAD)

Nobrega-Olivera said so many families of the hui haven’t been able to make salt for six consecutive years.

“We are working on hydrology study in that area that is happening,” Nobrega-Olivera said. “We are learning what causes it, the overtopping from the ocean side or overflowing from the puna or wells. We are looking and trying to work with researchers from the University of Hawai‘i.

According to Nobrega-Olivera, due to the pandemic, UH researchers couldn’t fly here, so she has been doing the research and taking her own tests while learning from UH researchers.

“Anything we do to protect this area is our main goal, so that the generation to come can continue to make salt,” Nobrega-Olivera said.

Meanwhile, EPA said as detailed in the proposed consent agreement and final order, Smoky Mountain Helicopters or Maverick Helicopters must begin payment of the $45,000 civil penalty on Jan. 1, 2021, and complete payment by Dec. 1, 2023.

“While the circumstances relating to the closure of an LCC are specific to each facility or individual, it typically takes four to six months to close an LCC,” said Miller. “The respondent has until April 30, 2021, to close the LCC.”

Large-capacity versions are banned by federal law, but are used throughout Hawai‘i for the disposal of untreated sanitary waste.

“Discharge of raw, untreated sewage to a cesspool can contaminate oceans, streams and groundwater by releasing disease-causing pathogens and nitrates,” EPA said.

“Disease-causing organisms found in untreated sewage can impact human health by contaminating drinking water or water used for recreation, such as swimming. Nitrates can damage the land or aquatic ecosystems, including coral reefs.”

According to EPA, based on a survey conducted by the state Department of Health, there are approximately 88,000 active cesspools in Hawai‘i, the majority of which are small-capacity cesspools, which are regulated by the DOH. Approximately 1,395 meet the federal criteria of a large-capacity cesspool and are therefore banned under U.S. law.

When Smoky Mountain Helicopters aka Maverick Helicopters’ Vice President of Marketing Bryan Korten was contacted for comment, he offered only this statement: “We look forward to reopening our Kaua‘i helicopter operation as business conditions recover from the pandemic.”

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