LIHU‘E — Traces of the artificial sweetener sucralose have been found in 20 streams and four rivers on Kaua‘i, and some scientists say it could mean cesspools and septic systems on the island are leaking into those streams and rivers.
Volunteers with the Kaua‘i Chapter of Surfrider Foundation Blue Water Task Force reported the findings in their April announcement of water-quality results from samples taken monthly from river mouths and surf spots around the island.
The BWTF is headed up by John Alderete, and was led for years by Kaua‘i resident Carl Berg, current senior scientist for Surfrider Kaua‘i.
Berg said he and Alderete have been checking bacteria and virus levels in water for 14 years.
There are other Surfrider chapters on the other islands in the state, and over 80 chapters nationwide.
“We all measure the same thing, which is the bacteria (acceptable levels) that the EPA recommends, and the state of Hawai‘i has said (it) is their standard for indicating that the waters are polluted,” Berg said.
“So it’s what we’re looking at is a single kind of bacteria enterococcus. And that’s all we test for, because that’s what the state of Hawai‘i tests for. We don’t test where the Department of Health tests. We test all the other places.
“And, mainly, we test the streams and rivers and also the surf sites out where the surfers actually play, because we’re the Surfrider Foundation,” Berg said.
In April, the BWTF reported above-average bacteria levels in 12 of the 17 sites that were sampled.
And BWTF scientists said they also found the chemical sucralose during their testing process, a chemical that is found in processed foods like bagels, or as a sweetener in coffee.
While Alderete and Berg say the presence of sucralose is an indicator of potential cesspool leaking, it could also come from recycled golf-course water or from pig farms that feed livestock processed human foods.
“Based upon the testing that Kaua‘i Chapter of Surfrider has done, there are concerns that the antiquated cesspools and non-compliant septic systems near the streams or near the ocean may be polluting those bodies of water,” Berg said leaking “into the groundwater into the streams and rivers, then onto the beach, and then into the ocean.”
The goal is to identify those systems and get them replaced as soon as possible, they said.
There are about 13,698 cesspools on Kaua‘i and an estimated 88,000 active cesspools statewide, the majority of which are small-capacity cesspools, regulated by the stateDepartment of Health.
Small-capacity cesspools are not banned under U.S. law, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency banned the construction of new, large-capacity cesspools (LCCs) in 2000, and required existing LCCs to be closed no later than April 5, 2005.
Amy Miller, EPA Pacific Southwest regional director of enforcement and compliance assurance, said EPA is concerned about the impacts of cesspools on human health and the environment in Hawai‘i, where groundwater provides 95% of all domestic water and where cesspools are used more widely than in any other state.
She said since EPA’s 2005 federal LCC ban, more than 3,400 LCCs (689 LCCs on Kaua‘i) have been closed statewide voluntarily by owners or via EPA enforcement activities.
The EPA continues to conduct enforcement to target and close LCCs, but given the challenges to finding them, EPA encourages all landowners, including state agencies, to help identify more LCCs by conducting voluntary compliance audits.
“Release of raw, untreated sewage to a cesspool can contaminate oceans, streams and groundwater by releasing disease-causing pathogens and nitrates,” Miller said.
“Bacteria and viruses found in such cesspool sewage can impact human health through drinking or swimming in contaminated water. Nitrates can damage land or aquatic ecosystems, including coral reefs.
State DOH Wastewater Branch Chief Sina Pruder pointed out that cesspools inject about 40 million gallons of raw sewage a day into Hawai‘i’s groundwater, “contaminating drinking-water sources, streams and oceans with disease-causing pathogens.”
“The discharge of raw sewage is also impacting the coral reef,” Pruder said.
To mitigate those impacts, DOH has established a cesspool-conversion working group to develop a long-range, comprehensive plan for cesspool conversion statewide for all cesspools by 2050.
Stuart Coleman, executive director and founder of the Hawai‘i nonprofit Wastewater Alternatives &Innovations, said Hawai‘i has the most cesspools per capita of any state in the country.
“We just can’t ignore it any longer, because there are human and environmental health threats,” Coleman said. “And it could also affect the bottom line of tourists, if people, you know, find out our waters are polluted.”
Stephanie Shinno, education and business reporter, can be reached at 245-0424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.