Kahalu‘u and Upcountry Maui top the state’s list of priority areas for cesspool replacement. The state Department of Health shared its latest assessment of Hawai‘i’s nearly 88,000 cesspools with legislators yesterday. The report found half of those cesspools pose a potential risk of contaminating drinking water or coastal ecosystems and should be replaced as soon as possible. But exactly how to replace them and who’s going to pay for it remains in question. HPR’s Ku‘uwehi Hiraishi reports.
For hundreds of thousands of households across the state what they flush down their toilets may be going into your drinking water.
“It was not meant to alarm the public necessarily,” says Keith Kawaoka, Deputy Director of the Health Department’s Environmental Management Division.
In its report to legislators, the health department identified more than 40,000 cesspools in Hawaiʻi that pose the highest potential risk of contaminating the water we drink and swim in.
“Overall the water is safe to drink in all parts of the state,” says Kawaoka.
Hawaiʻi has nearly 88,000 cesspools – far more than any other state. Every day these cesspools release an estimated 55 million gallons of raw sewage into the ground. That’s enough waste to fill 83 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
“We need to find a way to treat that,” says Bill Kucharski, Director of Hawaiʻi County’s Environmental Management Department.
The Big Island is home to nearly 60 percent of the state’s cesspools.
“But I think we’re a few years away and a lot more study away to coming up with a solution that is acceptable and viable for most people,” says Kucharski.
Last year the state mandated every cesspool in Hawaiʻi either hook up to the sewer system or convert to a septic tank. The health department’s report determined 14 areas across the state in which efforts to convert cesspools should be prioritized.
Top priority areas for each island on the list includes Upcountry Maui, Keaʻau on the Big Island; Kōloa/Pōʻipu on Kauaʻi; and Kahaluʻu, Oʻahu. But the cost of that conversion is not cheap.
“You know I think we estimated roughly about $20,000 per upgrade,” says Kawaoka, “You do the math and it comes out to $1.5 to over $2 billion to solve this problem.”
Kucharski echoed the sentiment of neighbor islanders at the hearing in saying there’s no one-size fits all solution. Connecting to the sewer system may be an easy option in Honolulu, but for the Big Island, not so much.
“We have areas that it just doesn’t make sense. We’re a rural island the Big Island,” says Kucharski, “Trying to sewer the entire Big Island with the scattered population bases is something that no one can afford and I don’t think appropriate.”
Until conversions start happening, Representative Jarrett Keohokālole is worried about the current level of cesspool pollution in his district of Kahaluʻu.
“I mean yeah we need to convert these guys,” says Rep. Keohokālole, “But is it an immediate public health concern?”
The department found high counts of bacteria in Kahaluʻu surface water as well as incidents of skin infections consistent with sewage contamination. But when pressed by Keohokālole, the department was unable to confirm a direct correlation exists.
“It’s just difficult for the community to determine whether what’s going on in the water is associated to the cesspool issue or not,” says Rep. Keohokālole.
The Kahaluʻu community will get a chance to ask their questions at the department’s community meeting this Friday, January 12, at the Key Project.