Hilo’s aging wastewater treatment plant, part of which is located at one of Hawaiʻi’s oldest Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) communities, is in imminent danger of failing and releasing millions of gallons of untreated sewage into Hilo Bay.
For decades, the residents of Keaukaha have lived next to the treatment facility and endured the realities of that proximity, said Pat Kahawaiolaa, president of the Keaukaha Community Association. Although the county relocated the main facility about 25 years ago to its current location near the Hilo Airport, a pump station remains at Keaukaha and the problems persisted.
“Because of the smell, we suffered that way for years. If there’s a power outage at the plant, or in Hilo, we get subjected to that,” said Kahawaiolaa. He and others are pushing for solutions to both the long-term impacts to his community and an immediate fix to prevent an environmental disaster.
“We would be particularly impacted because the outfall is about an eighth of a mile off of our coast, where we recreate – right off our beach park. So that’s an impact yet to be realized,” said Kahawaiolaa.
In a worst-case scenario, if the system fails as much as 2.8 million gallons per day of untreated wastewater could come through the outfall, said Ramzi Mansour, director of Hawai‘i County’s Department of Environmental Management. In the event of a failure, the county may need to shut off the water system to reduce the amount of flow into the system.
Mansour and his team are working with Civil Defense to put together a plan in the event that a failure should occur. In the meantime, they are in the process of lining up designs, supplies and funding to begin fixes to the wastewater treatment plant as soon as next year. About half of the design for the replacements is nearly complete. Mansour plans to put the project out to bid in the first quarter of 2023.
Fixing the wastewater treatment will happen in two phases at an estimated cost of $170 million to $180 million. The project will likely be funded by a combination of a county general obligation bond and state revolving funds through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health.
The first phase will replace the headworks and digester system, which are beyond repair, Mansour said. The second phase will focus on rehabilitating the remaining components within the system.
“Kudos to our operators and our community for understanding the situation that we deal with,” said Mansour. “Our operators continue to operate in a facility that is hard to manage at this stage, but I think they do a great job. We are still meeting compliance.”
Hawaiʻi County Councilmember Sue Lee Loy called the potential failure of the wastewater treatment facility “Red Hill-esque,” referring to the fuel leaks that contaminated freshwater supplies on Oʻahu.
“These are big dollars, but that’s the type of big money that we need to get this project done. And without sounding like an alarmist, we need to prioritize this immediately because of the environmental impact that this could have,” Lee Loy said. She acknowledged the hard work of the staff at the treatment facility while recognizing that their hands are tied without a significant investment in the entire system.
The problems with the wastewater treatment facility have been decades in the making and Lee Loy said that is symptomatic of a larger problem: Hawaiʻi County does not systematically track or prioritize its infrastructure needs.
To address this problem, she and fellow councilmember Ashley L. Kierkiewicz introduced a resolution to complete a needs assessment of the county’s “capital assets” including its infrastructure.
Rather than fund projects based on each administration’s priorities, this resolution would require the county to direct its investments based on the findings of the assessment to ensure the “highest and best use of limited resources based on priorities and community needs.”
The fixing of Hilo’s wastewater treatment facility is just one of many infrastructure issues the county is facing.
In addition to his concerns about the facility, Kahawaiolaa worries about his community’s ability to comply with the state’s mandate to convert all cesspool systems to septic before 2050. “Either way it’s going to be cost-prohibitive, and that’s for everybody,” he said. “But in my case, for the Hawaiian community, it will put a strain on future development.”