Sunday, June 27, 2010

Honolulu's Sewage Treatment -- A Very Costly Problem

I have held several "Talk Story with Panos" this year and I am astounded of how little people know about our sewers. Of course sewers is not a routine matter for a city's residents but nothing about Honolulu sewers is routine.

For starters, our sewer system is quite old, frail and undersized. As a result we have sewage main failures, sewer line failures, and sewage plant failures. This is the good news. They are normal, but we have too many of them. The Sierra Club made a career out of successfully suing the city for these spills. These spills are terrible for our coastal environment which is enjoyed by residents and tourists alike.

Yet our old sewers issue is still the good news because the City has this problem under partial control. The bad news is that Honolulu is the only metropolitan area of its size that does not have secondary sewage treatment. We basically filter the solids and discharge all the rest of the sewage 1.5 miles out in the ocean. Just like the sewage from Waikiki was discharged into the Ala Wai.

The difference is that we discharge almost 10 times the quantity of the Waikiki sewage every day! EPA did not agree with Honolulu's practice. We lost the suit and the appeal against the EPA. What does this mean? A $1.2 Billion liability for the city is a reality. (Yet another reason for Mayor Hannemann to get of the mayor's train.) See this 2009 report in the Star Bulletin:

Now Andrew Pereira of KHON News reports that the City has settled with the EPA.( I am sure that the Hannemann administration is working hard to spin this in a pleasant way. But there is no doubt that Senator Inouye was correct in 2008 when he said that this $1.2 Billion liability "can break the back of the city."

How so? If EPA gives us till 2020 to come into compliance, then that's only 10 years to build a $1.2 Billion secondary treatment infrastructure. So the cost with interest comes to roughly $150 million per year. That's about the same cost of TheBus to operate for one year. So, for example, if we have no other funds, then TheBus has to shut down for 10 years in order to afford this commitment.

This analogy frames the cost of a $1.2 Billion project for Oahu. Rail is five times that. I'll leave it to the reader to frame that cost for Oahu.