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The Conversation

Shutting down Hawaiʻi's large capacity cesspools is the first priority, EPA says

Large Capacity Cesspool EPA infographic
U.S. Environment Protection Agency
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The Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on illegal large capacity cesspools across the state.

Hawaiʻi has nearly 90,000 cesspool systems, most of which serve single-family homes. But a small number of them are large capacity cesspools, meaning they serve 20 or more people a day.

Congress banned the construction of large capacity cesspools in 2000, and five years later outlawed the operation of existing systems.

"Cesspools are used throughout Hawaiʻi for the disposal of untreated sanitary waste. Discharge of raw untreated sewage to a cesspool can contaminate ocean streams and groundwater by releasing disease-causing pathogens and nitrates," said Amy Miller, a regional director of enforcement and compliance assurance with the EPA.

Those pathogens can impact human health through exposure caused by drinking contaminated water or swimming in it, Miller said.

"Nitrates can also damage land and aquatic ecosystems and coral reefs," Miller told The Conversation. "Protecting Hawaiʻi's communities and precious water resources is really important in enforcing the ban for large capacity cesspools."

Miller said shutting those down is their first priority.

"We all want cesspools closed, and we would prefer to do it with the carrot rather than the stick. But we will, with respect to the large capacity cesspools, we will be doing our part in ensuring that those ones are closed," Miller said.

"We want to encourage the public if they are aware of large capacity cesspools, we have a tip line 415-947-4510. We get a lot of tips through that line, as well as on our website www.echo.epa.gov. Report a tip and we will follow up," she said.

The EPA can fine operators of illegal large capacity cesspools over $23,000 a day.

This interview aired on The Conversation on March 14, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

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