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State Environmental Council Information and Outreach Committee: Provide Public With Information

Department of Health

Hawai’i homes with cesspools must be upgraded by 2050.But, a State Environmental Council Committee is calling for more scientific evidence to drive this mandate.




Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Roy Abe, licensed civil engineer and chair of the State Environmenta Council's Information and Outreach Committee

There are 88-thousand residential cesspools that must be upgraded in 32 years. Each cesspool will cost, on average, about $20-thousand.  The State Environmental Council’s Information and Outreach Committee Chair, Roy Abe, wants to publish an article in the Council’s annual report to provide another perspective.


“The cesspool actually has quite a bit of liquid in it.  It’s six-foot in diameter and ranges from ten to even up to 40 feet deep.  When the wastewater goes in there, the solids do settle, there is biological degradation going on and as the wastewater percolates into the ground, there’s additional filtration occurring.  So DoH and also the EPA, they’ve come up and says that cesspools discharge raw wastewater and that’s why I object because there’s some treatment going on.”


Abe is a licensed civil engineer with 38 years of experience in wastewater systems.  Committee member, Maka’ala Ka’aumoana, says the north shore of Kaua’i has been studied for years.  She says cesspools near the shoreline and rivers do pose a health threat to people, sea creatures and coral but the scientific evidence cannot pinpoint the source.


Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Maka'ala Ka'aumoana, member of the Information and Outreach Committee and representative from Kaua'i

“We know that a large majority of the bacterial pollutants that enter Hanalei River, enter above habitation and we’ve used caffeine as a marker because cows, apparently, don’t drink coffee.  And so, we can determine whether it was a human or an animal-generated waste.  And the fact is, it’s all of us.”


Ka’aumoana says illegal vacation rentals on Kaua’i and elsewhere in the state are also taxing cesspools.  Mary Begier is vice chair of the State Environmental Council.  She says Department of Health wastewater rules based on household size should also be revisited.


Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Mary Begier, vice chair for the State Environmental Council and representative from the Big Island

“If you have a 2-bedroom house, they feel like you can have 3 people in one of those bedrooms,  If you have a 3-bedroom house, thenb they go to two people in a bedroom.  When you go to a 4-bedroom house, then they go back to say there could be 3 people in two of those bedrooms.  It’s being done in the spirit of determining realistic and fair about how family size and in particular out culture.  So, it’s an imperfect science.”


Chair Abe says more work should go into the state’s plan because spending $1.75 billion to replace 88-thousand cesspools might not achieve the stated outcome.


“The Wai’anae Coast was basically all cesspools at one time and they put in treatment plants and sewer systems to eliminate the cesspools and yet, they still have problems with their coral and algae growth and so on.  So, it’s something else.  From my opinion, it’s the sediment, the runoff and other things.”


For HPR News, I’m Wayne Yoshioka.

Wayne Yoshioka
Wayne Yoshioka is an award-winning journalist who has worked in television, print and radio in Hawaiʻi. He also has been on both sides of politics as a state departmental appointee and political/government reporter. He covered Hurricane Iwa (1982) as a TV reporter; was the State Department of Defense/Civil Defense spokesperson for Hurricane Iniki (1992); and, commanded a public affairs detachment in Afghanistan (2006). He has a master's degree in Communication from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and is a decorated combat veteran (Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and 22 other commendation/service medals). He resides in Honolulu.
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