HILO — Cesspool and septic tank owners would be charged a new fee to pay for water quality monitoring, under a bill moving through the state Legislature that’s part of Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s “New Day” plan.
House Bill 903 assesses an unspecified “reasonable” fee on owners of individual wastewater systems that 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. Individual wastewater systems are defined as cesspools, septic tanks, aerobic treatment units and any collection systems not connected to a sewer.
The annual fee would be collected by the counties as part of property taxes or through some other method.
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.
Opponents include large landowners, economic development groups and builders. The law is unnecessary they say, as there are adequate safeguards already in place. The bill will create another layer of bureaucracy, adding to the cost and time it takes to build a home, opponents say.
The bill was cleared by its last committee, the Senate Ways and Means Committee, on Wednesday. All Hawaii Island House members voted for the bill before it was sent to the Senate. Big Island Sens. Josh Green, Gilbert Kahele and Russell Ruderman, all Democrats, voted in favor of the bill in committees.
Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi opposes the measure, saying it will disproportionally affect the Big Island, with its 58,989 individual cesspools and septic systems.
“We just feel if the Department of Health is going to levy a tax that it comes to Hawaii Island and hold public hearings,” Kenoi said Monday. “We just want to make sure the voices of our county residents are heard.”
Management plans would be required for owners of land of 10 acres or more, except for land used in farming activities, which has been exempted by amendments to the House bill. The fee would be assessed on all property owners who have individual wastewater systems, regardless of the size of the property.
The Department of Health, in testimony to the Legislature, emphasized the need for the new funding to monitor water pollution sources. Officials were unavailable to discuss the matter Monday. A spokesman for the governor also didn’t return a telephone message by press time.
“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,” said Health Director Loretta Fuddy 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. Matt Kurano, an environmental specialist with the department’s Clean Water Branch, said he doesn’t know how much money would be required.
“Under this proposed bill, operators of individual wastewater systems will also be required to pay fees necessary to help ensure pollution from their systems is reduced and properly managed,” Fuddy said.