The state Department of Health ordered warning signs at Keehi Lagoon Beach Park to be taken down on Friday after a sewage spill, even though its own test data showed that bacteria levels in the water significantly exceeded Hawaii’s safe water standards.
The beach was declared safe in time for a high school canoe paddling competition on Saturday, an event that state health officials were aware of.
High bacteria levels associated with human fecal matter are linked to painful gastrointestinal illnesses as well as skin, throat and nasal infections, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Watson Okubo, a supervisor at the health department’s clean water branch, told Civil Beat that the bacteria levels in Keehi Lagoon are always high, so it didn’t make sense to continue testing the water for fecal matter or keep the warning signs posted.
But the state’s actions following the sewage spill raise questions about the health department’s compliance with its own rules which are designed to protect the public from polluted beaches.
The spill also highlights Honolulu’s continuing struggle to fix its aging sewer pipes. Under a 2010 agreement with the EPA, the city is required to overhaul its sewage system by 2035, at an expected cost of $4.5 billion. But until then, raw sewage continues to pollute Hawaii waterways.
Officials don’t know how long sewage had been leaking into Keehi Lagoon when they discovered the spill earlier this month. The pipe at Koapaka Street may have been leaking sewage into the water for more than two weeks.
The state Department of Transportation reported water discoloration in a nearby drainage canal on Dec. 26. But state and city officials weren’t able to find the leak and fix it until Jan. 9, after the transportation department again reported the discoloration, according to Janice Okubo, a spokeswoman for the health department.
Janice Okubo said that the sewage spill likely wasn’t large and that even though the bacteria levels tested high, they seemed to be returning to average levels for that area.
What the Data Says
The pipe was fixed on Thursday and the health department tested the water in Keehi Lagoon that day, according to Janice Okubo.
Data provided by the department shows that in three of the four areas tested, the results for enterococci bacteria exceeded the state limit. In fact, areas near the Nimitz viaduct were as high as eight times the state limit.
The health department also tests for a bacteria called clostridium as a backup for determining the presence of human sewage. Clostridium levels exceeded the state’s threshold in three out of the four areas tested. In one area it was nearly double the safe limit.
The health department is required to test Hawaii’s beaches for bacteria under the federal Beach Act, passed in 2000, and notify the public if there are high levels of bacteria present. But it’s failed to test dozens of beaches in recent years, citing a lack of funding and resources.
Keehi Lagoon Beach Park is not a beach that the department regularly tests, even though it’s a popular recreational area for canoe races and boating. It’s also listed as “impaired,” according to Dean Higuchi, a spokesman for the EPA, and the state is required to come up with a plan to clean it up. It’s unclear what the health department is doing about the plan.
Higuchi said that the beach park is particularly prone to stormwater runoff.
The health department did initiate special testing of the beach this year between May and October, due to concerns about another broken sewage pipe in the area. The results show that about a third of the time the levels of bacteria spiked above state limits.
As of late last year, the city had completed inspecting nearly 600 miles of sewer pipeline and finished dozens of sewer rehabilitation projects. But the priority has been to fix the large main pipes first, and smaller lines like those near Keehi Lagoon are being left until later in the project.
The decision by the health department to discontinue testing at Keehi Lagoon last week and take down warning signs underscores a long debate about whether federal standards for detecting human fecal matter apply to Hawaii.
Hawaii health officials have repeatedly argued that enterococci bacteria exist naturally in Hawaii’s environment and are not a reliable test for determining the presence of human sewage. But the EPA has continues to use that standard.
“There are scientists in the community that contend that enterococci and other types of bacteria are just naturally found in Hawaii and they like to disregard those levels as simply being background,” said Robert Harris, director of the Hawaii Sierra Club, which sued the city over its sewage system. “On the other hand, you have a situation where the letter of the law shows that if there are exceedances of safe limits, they should act accordingly.”