Hawaii is struggling to find more sanitary ways to dispose of human waste after years of putting sewage into open holes in the ground.
The state’s five islands have more than 88,000 “cesspools,” Hawaii’s Department of Health determined in a recent report. The cesspools put 53 million gallons of sewage into ground and surface water.
The 2017 legislative session passed a law requiring all cesspools to be replaced with better sewer systems by 2050, but that might not be fast enough.
“We found that sewage is leaking into the ocean, and we swim in it,” Peter Hackstedde, president of Puako Community Association on the main island, told The Wall Street Journal. Hackstedde said he has gotten infected through a cut from swimming in contaminated water.
At the Kahaluu bay on Oahu, “skin infections consistent with sewage-contaminated surface waters have been documented,” the department said.
Many rural communities throughout Hawaii depended on cesspools as the main sewage disposal method for years, but as the population continued to expand the island’s groundwater wells began to be contaminated. More than 90 percent of the drinking water supply comes from groundwater wells, and “dense concentrations of cesspool are present over many drinking water aquifers, posing a threat to new drinking water sources,” the health department’s report said.
In addition to contaminating drinking water, overflowing cesspools also could slip into the ocean and cause infections to swimmers, and damage land ecosystems and coral reefs with excessive nitrogen and phosphorus.
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The department received 500 requests for new cesspools each year until the state banned construction of the pits in 2016. One of the major problems with replacing cesspools is the cost. It could cost $100,000 to replace one sewage pit in Maui, State Sen. J. Kalani English, a Democrat, told WSJ.
“You may want a clean environment, but you can’t afford to pay for it,” Keith Kawaoka, environmental health deputy director at the Department of Health, said. “It’s a real dilemma.”
Replacing all the current cesspools with underground sewer systems would cost $1.75 billion, so the legislature is looking for other solutions to the problem. Replacing each cesspool could cost at least $20,000. Or, $54 million per year through 2049. So the state is looking for other fixes, like connecting homes to local sewer systems and building new sewers for new communities, to drive down the cost per cesspit.
“Everyone who lives down here is pretty much for cleaning up the ocean,” Hackstedde said. “We just need the money.”
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