WASHINGTON – Before U.S. Representative Kai Kahele returned to Washington last week, he joined pro surfer Laird Hamilton for a boat trip down the Hanalei River in Kauai.
Hamilton pointed to the invasive hau bush along the riverbanks and told the congressman about the heavy rains that are eroding the hills and inundating the roads, sometimes cutting the small north coast community off from the rest of the island.
Kahele has also witnessed the disappearance of shorelines caused by coastal erosion and sea level rise brought on by climate change.
A first-year lawmaker who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Kahele wanted to see firsthand how Hawaii’s bridges, roads and highways held up so he could report back to his colleagues on how much. The money the state might need if Congress passes President Joe Biden’s $ 2.3 trillion infrastructure plan.
What Kahele saw, however, was not pretty.
In an interview with Civil Beat, Kahele described walking through a decades-old sewage treatment plant that he said could be the “worst in the country” and visiting the waterfronts where the treated sewage are dumped on the shore “directly on the rocks”.
“It’s not sexy,” Kahele said. “But if you saw what I saw, you would know this is something we need to sort out.”
Kahele, like other Democrats, has opposed the US Biden Jobs Plan, which aims to modernize the country’s ports, railways and bridges while investing in green energy.
He recently organized a video roundtable with U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to discuss some of the islands’ top priorities. Among the guest speakers were the head of Hawaiian Electric and the Pacific Resource Partnership, a labor organization that defends Honolulu’s $ 12.4 billion rail project.
In his interview with Civil Beat, Kahele stressed the need to tackle large capacity sumps and injection wells in its 2nd Congressional District, which represents the countryside of Oahu and neighboring islands.
For too long, he said, local authorities have abdicated their responsibility when it comes to tackling aging infrastructure and finding ways to get away from sumps that allow raw sewage and not treated to infiltrate into the environment.
Now, he said, he and the rest of the Hawaii federal delegation must find a way to get them the help they need to solve a problem he says requires hundreds of millions of dollars. at least.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CIVIL BEAT: What would you describe as your top priorities in this infrastructure proposal released by the Biden administration?
KAHELE: I focus on wastewater and drinking water. It is really important that we try to get as much money as possible for the state and various counties so that we can invest in modern and improved sanitation systems so that we can provide clean drinking water, protect our aquifers, protect our coastal fisheries and protect our coral reefs.
In the US jobs plan, the president is proposing about $ 111 billion to ensure clean and safe drinking water, and I hope the delegation can get as much as possible.
We know Hawaii is rated D + in the American Society of Civil Engineers (Infrastructure Assessment Bulletin) and we know we have suffered from a lack of infrastructure investment for years.
There are specific projects that need to be done more in the 2nd congressional district and then probably in the 1st congress district, which has a modern sanitation system. The 2nd Congressional District is lagging behind.
There are major issues on the island of Hawaii – the island on which I reside – that need to be addressed immediately by Hawaii County and that have been pushed back for too long by too many jurisdictions.
Can you give some examples of projects that come to mind?
There are two large high capacity sumps on the island of Hawaii at Pahala and Naalehu. There is a consent administrative order for Hawaii County from the United States Environmental Protection Agency that has been in existence since 2017 under the Harry Kim administration.
Large capacity sumps were banned in April 2005. The County of Hawaii has been in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and federal EPA rules and regulations since 2010, when the county took over responsibility for the large capacity sumps in Pahala. and Naalehu.
This is a major problem right now in Hawaii County. They could face multi-million dollar fines if they don’t complete their projects and fall far short of the Consent Administrative Order.
Another issue is the two wastewater treatment facilities that exist in Hawaii County. The East Hawaii wastewater treatment plant is potentially the worst wastewater treatment plant in the country. It’s very, very bad and potentially on the verge of a major disaster and I’m not exaggerating.
What makes it so bad?
They built it in 1992 and it has never been serviced. No administration has put any money into it. Raw sewage is highly corrosive and no maintenance has been performed on the installation. The Hawaii County employees who work at this facility have gone to great lengths to keep it running, but it is in desperate need of millions of dollars in investment.
Hawaii County likely needs around $ 500-700 million to take care of the large-capacity cesspools and wastewater systems found in Hilo and Kona, as well as the four systems. sewage from the 60-year-old plantation era they have on the Hamakua coast which in some cases discharges the treated sewage directly to the shore. He doesn’t even go into the ocean; it’s right on the rocks.
There are thousands of sumps on the island of Hawaii and each one is going to require a ton of money to replace them.
If you want to jump over Maalaea Bay on Maui, there are about 10 condominiums out there that injected sewage directly into the bay through injection wells.
Basically, the wastewater is treated in each individual condo and then this wastewater is re-injected into the ground, which has had major effects on the coral in Maalaea Bay as well as coastal fishing. It’s the same problem they had in Lahaina, where Maui County lost a decision in the United States Supreme Court.
A number of sewage problems exist in the 2nd Congressional District. Some islands are better than others. Hawaii County is the worst. But this is what I hope to fight for so that we can ensure that the public has clean drinking water and that our underground aquifers are safe.
It’s not sexy, right? People want parks and golf courses and the things they use and see every day (to be safe). But sewage has really been ignored for years and years and it’s something that we have to deal with as a state.
Now is the perfect time to do it with the US bailout, as it can provide millions of dollars for jobs and investments in Hawaii’s wastewater infrastructure.
The infrastructure package is huge – over $ 2 trillion – but based on what you describe, it still won’t be enough.
If Hawaii could get $ 1 billion to fix the sewage problem, at least that would put us on the right track. There are 2 million people in the United States who do not have access to safe drinking water.
If there is $ 111 billion nationwide to ensure safe drinking water and the elimination of all lead pipes, hopefully we can combine that with the elimination of large sumps. capacity and treatment of our county wastewater treatment facilities.
It’s going to require some legislative wrangling on your part as well as the rest of the delegation to make sure there is money for these projects. At this point, there is still no legislation, but the White House fact sheet on the proposal does not even contain the word “sump.” Can you explain how you plan to convince your colleagues that these funds should be set aside for these projects?
We’re going back to DC to figure out how to make the sausage and engage with the jurisdiction committees and the EPA so we can figure out how we can do it. So I’m going to have to get back to you on how we can integrate it. Doing nothing is not an option.
You had a roundtable with US Representative Peter DeFazio where he said House members would get $ 15-20 million to spend on projects of their choice. Have you given much thought to how you will allocate these funds?
Well, $ 15 to $ 20 million isn’t a lot of money. You start with the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan and the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization’s own Transportation Improvement Plan, which basically outlines projects that have already been approved for a share of the federal costs.
For example, among the main state bridges to be replaced, there are two bridges at Makaha just off Makaha Beach that were built in the 1930s. They are wooden, they are old, and they need to be replaced, so it is an opportunity in the 2nd congressional district.
In Hilo, Waianuenue Avenue is another road resurfacing project that requires federal funds. Of course you have the completion of the Daniel K. Inouye road on the Big Island on the Kona side which is also in need of federal funds.
There are a lot of projects out there, but a lot of these come to us from the state or county transportation plan and the various mayors telling us for which specific bridges or roads they would like financial help, c so is what we’re going to do.