Wastewater science and denialism at Kealakehe


The conflict between science and politics these days commonly manifests itself as stark denialism. Denialism in Hawaii is basic. We have government officials and policies denying the effects of gravity on water.

It took a recent federal court decision to illustrate the physics and enforce the law. The court found that wastewater from the Lahaina, Maui, treatment plant injection wells flow down hill into the sea degrading the ocean. We are all now on notice.

The waster sump or pit of the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant disposes about 2 millions gallons of partially treated waster per day and for 20 years. The water rapidly disappears into the lava underground. Yet according to those responsible, including the Hawaii Department of Health and Hawaii County Department of Environmental Management, this water a mere 1.2 miles from the harbor and the coast remains in place and does not flow into the sea.

For more than 25 years as an academic and scientist for the University of California, I worked with industry, agriculture and large cities as the federal Clean Water Act was applied in the day-to-day business of keeping the waters protected for their beneficial uses.

In Kona, most wastewater is disposed, with state and county approvals, by putting it under the ground. It remains out of sight and out of mind. HDOH data points out the wastewaters of the KWWTP as the single largest source of pollutants threatening the health of the costal waters.

University of Hawaii hydrologists Steve Lau and John Mink state in their 2006 book, “Hydrology of the Hawaiian Islands,” on page 234: “However the coastal waters surrounding the islands will continue to be the ultimate sink for wastewaters, directly or indirectly.” Yet HDOH stated: “ We have chosen as a matter of policy to regulate this as ground water and not under the CWA. This policy denies that ground water is connected to the sea.

Urban wastewater has many constituents with polluting attributes. To the ocean the most significant of which are the abundant nitrates and phosphates. These are fertilizers. They fertilize the sea and ocean algae respond with an often-visible green hue. Our ocean waters are naturally nutrient deficient and the reason the sea is blue and clear. This algal greening is occurring at the shores of Koloko-Honokohou National Historical Park, Keauhou Bay and elsewhere.

The wastewater discharge from KWWTP adds considerable nutrients to the ground water and hence the sea each year. A number of scientific investigations have measured elevated nutrients in the local coastal waters coincident with other measures of ground and wastewater.

State and county officials, such as Bobby Jean Leithead Todd, are quick to mention a wastewater flow dye test that was done long ago. They report the test was negative, to prove that it does not flow to the sea. Former HDOH official B. Anderson writes of the visually monitored dye test result was “inconclusive.” The denialists used the fallacy of negative proof to confuse and obfuscate.

The very detailed and lengthy studies conducted at the wastewater injection wells in Kihei and Lahaina, Maui, show with scientific certainty that wastewater disposed in these wells moves into the nearshore waters. Both of these sites were degraded with nutrients and invasive algae species, rendering the shores degraded and unsavory. It is the same for Kona. The seas near Honokohou are impaired and officially “listed” by the EPA and state.

The larger problem we must face is the aggregate waste and water that is dumped, pumped or other wise flows underground and to the sea. We have hundreds of private wastewater injection wells. We have thousands of roadway and parking lot surface drains (dry wells). Collectively this urban wastewater is a major diffuse ocean pollution source, about which we know very little. Once again, it’s out of sight and out of mind.

The justification for the federal funding for construction of the KWWTP was to close the cesspools contaminating the ocean along Alii Drive. Sewage microbes, virus and bacteria like E. coli and staph in the sea are serious public health concerns. The sewer line conveys the raw sewage to the KWWTP, it’s partially treated and then dumped un-disinfected into the sump. The HDOH rationale for not disinfecting the wastewater hinges on the denialist belief it never makes contact with humans. It does not flow to the sea.

After 20 years of delays, excuses and denials it is time to apply the precautionary principle, as Mayor Harry Kim wrote years ago and seize the opportunity to make wastewater a valuable resource. Many communities reuse all their wastewater for landscaping, playgrounds, parks golf courses and even edible crops. Wastewater can be used to create scenic wetlands and habitat. In planned communities wastewater is reused for toilets and flushed again. Grey water is used on site and not comingled with sewage, greatly reducing and costs for the treatment plants.

One significant impediment to this diverse and local use of reclaimed waster is the civil engineering mentality that large centralized expensive and energy intensive waste treatment plants are our only option. This option seems to have been selected by the county, but it’s not too late to discourage these dinosaurs and hasten extinction.

We have expertise in the islands and the mainland that is eager to assist us create a diverse decentralized network of wastewater processing facilities and reuse. The new Kaiser Permanente Hawaii clinic near Honokohou has its own constructed wetlands wastewater treatment facility. This similar technology is in use at new developments such as Hawaii Community College — Palamanui.

Recently Mayor Billy Kenoi gave a college commencement speech where he told the graduates, “ You can and ignore those who say, no can.”

Yes, we can and must. We can clean up our wastewater messes. We can reuse the water, we can clean up the sea, and we can do all these. It is a huge win –win, if we chose it so. We can use science to our advantage to create options and declare; we can. Let that daily swoosh of the toilet flush remind each of us, it’s our kuleana, too.

Richard H. Bennett, president of Applied Life Sciences LLC, is a resident of Honaunau.

Viewpoint articles are the opinion of the writer and not necessarily the opinion of West Hawaii Today.