A dirty sump secret and a cautionary tale for Hawaii
Hawaii has more cesspools per capita than any other state and was the last in the country to ban them in several decades. It’s a dirty little secret that has remained hidden from most tourists and even many residents.
But it’s time to get to the bottom of this, spill the tea on the cesspools, and talk about how these substandard systems offer no cure for poop and pee.
There are 88,000 sumps across the islands, and they’re essentially just holes in the ground that dump more than 53 million gallons of untreated sewage a day into our groundwater. It’s like a huge sewage dump every day! Most people have a “rinse and forget” mentality when it comes to sanitation, but it’s become increasingly difficult to ignore the ill effects of sewage pollution here in Hawaii and the United States.
Sewage pollution from cesspools poses serious risks to water resources, human health and coastal ecosystems. Many of these substandard systems are located near water wells and sensitive coastal areas. In Keaau on the Big Island, there are more than 9,400 cesspools and Hawaii Department of Health studies have shown that 25% of drinking water wells in the area tested positive for fecal indicator bacteria. .
There is some good news. Over the past six years, a coalition of environmental groups, government officials and concerned citizens has helped pass three new laws to help protect water quality:
- Law 120 prohibits the construction of new cesspools
- Law 125 mandated the conversion of all cesspools by 2050
- Law 132 created the Cesspool Conversion Task Force
While on the Cesspool Conversion Task Force, I co-founded an environmental nonprofit called WAI: Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations to help solve this problem.
At WAI, we are committed to protecting water quality and reducing wastewater pollution. We do this by working to pass new laws and policies and find new sources of funding to help homeowners, as well as providing innovative remediation technologies that are more efficient, environmentally friendly and affordable. .
After three years of meetings, the Cesspool Conversion Working Group is writing its final report with recommendations to the state on how best to convert all cesspools. Before this report is released later this year, it is important to consider how other parts of the country are dealing with the same issues to learn from their experiences and benefit from the progress they have made.
In the summer of 2021, our WAI team visited our partners at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. Stony Brook’s Center for Clean Water Technology is part of the same National Decentralized Wastewater Innovation Cohort with WAI and four other organizations across the country, and they have done extensive research on wastewater and nutrient pollution. . What we learned on Long Island would prove to be a cautionary tale for Hawaii.
Although Hawaii has the most cesspools per capita, Suffolk County has the most (over 250,000). After years of studying wastewater problems, researchers at Stony Brook University and other institutions have shown that nutrient (primarily nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution from sumps and septic systems failures are wreaking havoc on estuaries and coastal ecosystems.
Excessive amounts of nitrogen from failing cesspools and septic systems enter groundwater and shorelines, causing toxic algal blooms, beach closures, fish kills and restrictions on shellfish . Nutrient pollution has become so severe that it has led to the almost complete collapse of the once thriving shellfish industry in Suffolk County.
Beyond the environmental and economic impacts, nutrient pollution from cesspools and septic tanks can also pose a serious threat to human health. Suffolk County has higher nitrate levels in its drinking water than 95% of the country, and recent studies have shown that there are high rates of bladder and kidney cancer in communities with low nitrate levels. are high.
During our visit to Long Island, I asked colleagues at Stony Brook University if I could use Suffolk County’s sewage problems as a cautionary tale for Hawaii.
Wasting no time, they said it was important to sound the alarm about the dangers of inadequate cesspools and septic systems. Like us, they want to help Hawaii avoid the broad environmental, economic, and human health problems caused by nutrient pollution.
What have we learned from our partners in Suffolk County? Beyond environmental and human health impacts, key lessons revolve around the need for more innovative technologies, financial resources, and new policies and regulations to help implement the necessary changes.
Since Suffolk County has struggled with these water quality issues for decades, it has conducted extensive research and testing of what it calls innovative and advanced on-site wastewater treatment systems. . Unlike traditional cesspools and septic systems, the county has developed a list of approved on-site technologies that reduce nutrient pollution. The list includes the most efficient aerobic treatment units, including those from Fuji Clean and Orenco Systems, as well as new nature-based systems called nutrient-reducing biofilters.
WAI helped introduce similar treatment techniques to Hawaii, such as Ridge to Reef’s Bioreactor Garden and Eljen’s geotextile sand filter systems. Both greatly reduce nitrogen levels, but do not require air pumps, annual maintenance costs or increased utility costs. We introduced the first Cinderella incineration toilet, which uses heat to turn waste into pathogen-free and odor-free ash.
WAI is also introducing more efficient conveying systems like Orenco’s pressurized liquid sewer model. The PreLOS system includes a holding tank on each property that uses a small pump and thin PVC piping just below the surface to transport liquids (which can represent up to 80% of wastewater) and connect to utility lines. nearby sewer or to a decentralized treatment plant. This model will be more affordable and less disruptive than installing large gravity sewer lines that require digging roads for months at a time.
Suffolk County has demonstrated its commitment to replacing old cesspools and septic systems by providing state and county grants of up to $30,000 to help homeowners with high conversion costs. Without financial support, most homeowners would struggle to find the money to install innovative systems that reduce nutrient pollution.
In a dramatic sign of progress, the Hawaii Legislature recently passed a new bill (House Bill 2195, now Bill 153) that would provide up to $20,000 in grants or rebates to low-to-middle income homeowners to help cover the cost of converting their sump pits. The state has yet to figure out exactly how to pass on the funds, either through grants to homeowners or through rebates to contractors who install the systems. We hope they can use Suffolk County as a model.
New policies, regulatory reforms
With Congress passing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there is a unique opportunity to access significant federal grants for wastewater treatment projects. The Environmental Protection Agency is working with the state Department of Health to help it access more funding from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.
But the state needs to create policies to set up transfer programs with counties and local nonprofits so they can help homeowners with the high costs and allow the barriers to converting their cesspools.
Hawaii is still behind when it comes to sump pit conversions, but we have a rare opportunity to become a national leader in new sanitation technologies and policies. By updating DOH regulations and licensing, the state can implement new treatment systems that reduce nutrient pollution. This way, we could leapfrog many other states that are forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to replace old and failing septic systems.
Ultimately, we must do everything possible to protect the quality of our water, as it is the basis of a healthy ecosystem. In Hawaiian culture, the word for water is wai and the word for wealth is waiwai. Without access to clean water, there is no real wealth, only a gradual deterioration in health for all of us.
If we learn from the cautionary tale provided by Suffolk County and other parts of the country, we can begin the work of restoring our water resources and natural ecosystems. It is immeasurably rich and a story worth sharing.