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Hawaiʻi has to pick up the pace on cesspool conversions, a local advocate says


Former state lawmakers J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen are scheduled to make their first federal court appearance on Feb. 15. Prosecutors this week alleged they took bribes in exchange for shaping cesspool legislation while in office.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says there are nearly 90,000 cesspools across the islands. Hawaiʻi has the highest number of cesspools per capita in the country and it was the last state to ban cesspools — most states banned them long ago.

The state Department of Health has set a deadline that cesspools of any size must “be upgraded, converted or closed by 2050.”

But advocates say homeowners need help to meet that deadline.

"At the current rate, we're not going to meet that deadline. That's why we're recommending policy changes, because we really have to ramp up that level of conversion," said Stuart Coleman, executive director of the environmental group Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations, or WAI. He also serves on the state’s Cesspool Conversion Working Group.

"Right now, they're doing about 150 to 200 cesspool conversions per year. But in order to convert almost 90,000 cesspools in the next less-than-30-years, we need to be doing more than 3,000 a year. So we have a long way to go. We really hope these bills that are in front of the Legislature now will get passed to help the state and to help homeowners with this really difficult process," he told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Speaker Scott Saiki has said the House will take a hard look at the cesspool bills this session, which include passing tax incentives or fees to help meet the deadline.

The average cost of converting a cesspool could run from $20,000 to $40,000. Failing to meet the deadline could mean fines for homeowners.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Feb. 10, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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