HILO — A state Senate panel on Friday killed a proposed fee on cesspool and septic tank owners after Hawaii Island residents raised a stink about it.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee had decided Wednesday to reconsider House Bill 903 the day after a West Hawaii Today article described the impact the bill would have on island residents. The committee had passed the measure 9-1 on March 27.
Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi opposed the bill, saying it would disproportionally affect the Big Island, with its 58,989 individual cesspools and septic systems. He had submitted testimony March 27 opposing the measure.
State Sen. Gil Kahele, D-Hilo, who had originally voted for the bill, said he asked committee leadership to reconsider after he learned there was more to the bill than first thought. He said he received a couple of emails about the bill, and he also talked to Kenoi.
“I took a closer look at the bill. The part about cesspools and septic tanks was kind of buried in the bill,” Kahele said. “Bills come across our desk quickly and sometimes we miss things.”
“Our mayor did a very good job in bringing it to my attention,” Kahele said. “The mayor deserves credit on this one.”
Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, said he also received emails. An environmentalist, Ruderman had voted for the bill, and he said he still thinks it’s a good idea “in my heart.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the emails I received were in opposition. It would have been a dilemma for me, but I would have had to vote with my constituents,” Ruderman said. “I hope it comes back up next year in a way that soothes people’s fears.”
Ruderman and Kahele said the bill wasn’t specific enough about what the fees might be. The bill says only the fee would be “reasonable” and would go into a new water pollution control account to pay for Department of Health staff to monitor discharges and enforce permits and management plans. The annual fee would be collected by the counties as part of property taxes or through some other method.
The bill was part of Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s bill package and a component of his “New Day” plan.
Proponents of the bill say it’s needed because runoff from the systems contains nutrients and chemicals that harm coral reefs and restrict public enjoyment of waterways and shorelines through brownwater advisories after heavy rains. Proponents include several state agencies and environmental groups.
All Hawaii Island House members voted for the bill before it was sent to the Senate. In addition to Ruderman and Kahele, Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, voted in favor of the bill in committees.
The Department of Health, in testimony to the Legislature, emphasized the need for the new funding to monitor water pollution sources.
“Individual wastewater systems, such as cesspools and septic systems, pollute the public’s surface waters and groundwater, and pose a threat to public health and safety,” Health Director Loretta Fuddy said in testimony. “Since individual wastewater systems are not connected to a sewer system, owners of individual wastewater systems do not pay the substantial fees charged to those who are served by sewers that treat and mitigate wastewater pollution.”
Fuddy said the department doesn’t have the staff or resources to monitor water quality without the additional fees.