Hawai‘i’s seriously pilau problem

The State of Hawai‘i has approximately 90,000 cesspools, the majority of which pose potential health risks to residents via water contamination. The Department of Health is proposing changes to its administrative rules that would begin to reduce the number of cesspools in the state through infrastructure upgrades.

Will Caron

The state Department of Health (DOH) will hold a public hearing on proposed updates to administrative rules regarding cesspools. The hearing will be held on O‘ahu at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, October 2, in the 5th Floor Conference Room at 919 Ala Moana Boulevard. 

Individuals desiring to testify are asked to submit two copies of their statement before or at the public hearing. Written statements will also be accepted until 4:00 p.m. on Friday, October 17, 2014, mailed to the Wastewater Branch, Environmental Management Division, State Department of Health, 919 Ala Moana Boulevard, Room 309, Honolulu 96814-4920, or emailed to [email protected]. The public notice, draft rule amendments, and rationale for the proposed amendments can be found here.

The DOH is proposing, in these updates, that no new cesspools be permitted and that existing cesspools be upgraded to sewers or septic systems within six months after the sale of a property.

Cesspools don’t treat wastewater, they merely store it in one location, often deep within the ground and in direct contact with groundwater, causing groundwater contamination. Cesspools can contaminate ground water, drinking water sources, streams and oceans with disease-causing pathogens, algae-causing nutrients, and other harmful substances. Untreated wastewater from cesspools can contain bacteria, protozoa and viruses that can cause gastroenteritis, Hepatitis A, conjunctivitis, leptospirosis, salmonellosis and cholera.

There are approximately 90,000 cesspools in the State, with nearly 50,000 located on the Big Island, almost 14,000 on Kaua‘i, over 12,000 on Maui, over 11,000 on O‘ahu and over 1,400 on Moloka‘i, according to the DOH. Hawai‘i is also the only state in the U.S. that still allows construction of new cesspools.
Approximately 800 new cesspools are approved for construction in Hawai‘i each year.

87,000 of the State’s cesspools pose a risk to our water resources, according to the DOH. There are approximately 6,700 cesspools that are located within 200 feet of a perennial stream channel throughout the State. There are approximately 31,000 cesspools that are located within the perennial watersheds on the islands of Hawai‘i, Kaua‘i, Maui, and Moloka‘i. Cesspools in Hawai‘i release approximately 55 million gallons of untreated sewage into the ground each day. Cesspools in Hawai‘i release as much as 23,700 pounds of nitrogen and nearly 6,000 pounds of phosphorus into the ground each day, which can stimulate undesirable algae growth, degrade water quality, and impact coral reefs.

Requiring cesspool upgrades when property is sold makes sense because the cost of the upgrade can be shared between the buyer and seller at a time when sellers, with proceeds from the sale, are better able to afford upgrading costs and buyers, who are usually borrowing already for their purchase, may obtain additional financing for eliminating a cesspool. Other states, including Iowa, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, require cesspools to be upgraded to septic systems when property ownership changes as well.