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Pearl Harbor wastewater treatment plant needs fixes to avoid future 'catastrophic failure'

Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii wastewater treatment plant at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam
Courtesy Photo/U.S. Navy
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Digital
FILE - Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii wastewater treatment plant at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in 2011 (U.S. Navy photo by Denise Emsley)

The U.S. Navy has yet to say if it will appeal a nearly $9 million fine from state health regulators due to sewage discharge violations near Pearl Harbor.

The pollutants were released into the water between January 2020 and July 2022 from the Hawaiʻi Wastewater Treatment Plant operated by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, the Department of Health said. The agency also found 212 counts of operation and maintenance failures.

On Thursday, more than 1,000 gallons of wastewater spilled into Pearl Harbor due to a 12-inch line break, the Navy said in a press release — the line was scheduled to be replaced in early October. The Navy said it notified state health officials and posted warning signs near the piers.

The treatment plant serves most people on the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system. It processes about 5 million gallons a day — the third largest plant in Hawaiʻi, according to Matt Kurano of the DOH Clean Water Branch.

"While an $8 million fine seems like a really huge amount, I think it's necessary to compel compliance at some of these facilities and force the people making the decisions to be aware of how expensive it is really to maintain this infrastructure," Kurano told The Conversation. "When you're maintaining facilities that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to billions of dollars, compliance is not an option and we have to remove any kind of economic incentive."

The plant has been in operation for decades, Kurano said, but the plant started reporting effluent limit violations around 2020.

"The Navy self-reports and then the Navy also self-reported when they found a bypass in the last month, but it's when we went and did our inspections that we identified additional issues that weren't necessarily that pressing to the Navy, but is certainly pressing as far as we're concerned," Kurano said. "I think they have big problems now, but they could have catastrophic issues down the road if they're not addressed now."

In a statement, Navy Region Hawaiʻi said the Navy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed in June 2021 to address deficiencies with the treatment plant. The Navy said it's on track to meet these obligations, which may also address some of the issues pointed out by the state Department of Health.

The Navy said it continues to improve operations at the plant, which remains operational.

"Right now they're back under compliance, or back in compliance, but they were really in a precarious position in terms of the actual equipment itself," Kurano said. "A large part of the order is to get people to come in — who are qualified and can do assessments — to identify exactly what parts need to be fixed, in exactly what order so that a slight malfunction at the plant doesn't, in fact, cause a catastrophic failure."

Earlier this year, the Navy contracted a $30 million project to modernize the facility. That work is expected to be completed by March 2024.

"I think they were in pretty good standing up to 10 years ago. But definitely over the last couple of years, we've really seen that the facility has fallen into disrepair," Kurano said.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 28, 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.
Sophia McCullough is HPR's digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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