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Flushing Cesspools Down the Toilet

Hawaii relies on its cesspools more than any state in the nation, according to the Department of Health (DOH), and officials want to change that. The DOH is proposing revised rules that would prevent new cesspools from being built and require switching to septic tanks if owners sell property with a cesspool on it.

The DOH feels that “Hawaii has fallen behind all other states in eliminating cesspool pollution,” according to an informational handout that Sina Pruder, an official from the DOH’s Wastewater Branch, reviewed in a public hearing on Molokai on Oct. 10. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the construction of new cesspools in 2000, and many states have taken similar measures years earlier. That’s the major change — though one of many — proposed to state rules regarding cesspools.

Five Molokai residents attended the hearing. Most agreed with the measures but disagreed with the way the DOH is going about it.

“They’re changing the rules in the middle of the game,” said Cheryl Corbiell, who has had a cesspool on her property since the 1990s, when installation was legal. She said she wishes the DOH would eliminate cesspools in phases instead of mandating a blanket enforcement. Molokai has 1,400 cesspools, while Hawaii as a whole contains 90,000.

According to the EPA, cesspools are underground disposal sites for untreated sewage. Despite the fact that some are lined with bricks or stones, cesspool linings are often perforated and allow liquid to seep into the surrounding soil, where it can have direct contact with groundwater. Septic tanks, meanwhile, collect waste in a large enclosed containers that can be found above or below ground. Solid wastes separate while in the tank, and the liquid drains out into a shallow field that flows safely above groundwater, the DOH handout explained.

Curtis Crabbe, who owns the Molokai Portable Toilets and Cesspool Pumping company, explained that cesspools are an ancient method of waste disposal, as they preceded even the invention of the modern flushing toilets in the 16th century.

“When they flushed the toilets, it went into that hole,” said Crabbe. “… From then, until now, cesspools have not changed.”

Crabbe agreed that “everybody needs to have a septic tank,” but also pointed out that many are unable to afford it. The only things required for digging a cesspool, he said, are “a friend and a backhoe.” Meanwhile, a typical septic tank averages $6,000 per installation, according to Homeadvisor.com.

The new rules give homeowners up to 180 days to upgrade to a septic tank after sale of the property is complete. While the rules are unclear as to who would have to pay for the installation of a septic tank, Corbiell feared the cost would fall to the current homeowners.

“This is not a buyer’s market on Molokai,” she said. “The seller would have to suck it in.”

Pruder said the DOH is aware of this issue.

“One of the other things we’re also looking at is how can we provide low interest loans or even grants to these homeowners,” she said. “It’s something we’re exploring and we know that it’s something that will be needed if these rules get passed.”

Pruder added that Molokai residents’ concerns were “no different” from those voiced at other public hearings around the state.

“What we’re looking at based on these comments, is maybe requiring it for sensitive areas instead of blanket requirement for homeowners,” said Pruder,

Hawaii is the only state that still allows cesspool installation. According to the DOH, Rhode Island, which with 25,000 cesspools is second only to Hawaii nationwide, banned residents from building new ones in 1968. The DOH added that 87,000 of Hawaii’s cesspools pose a threat to the environment, releasing nearly “55 million gallons of sewage; 23,700 pounds of nitrogen and nearly 6,000 pounds of phosphorus into the ground each day.”

To view all proposed revisions to Hawaii Administrative Rules (HAR) Chapter 11-62, Wastewater Systems, visit health.hawaii.gov/wastewater.

 

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