Species extinction. Ocean acidification. Rising sea levels. Invasive species. Solid waste disposal. Land development. Aquifer depletion. Sugar cane burning. Energy conservation. Superfund sites.
The list of environmental problems facing Hawaii (much less the rest of the planet) seems endless as it is, and I’m not even scratching the surface with the above accounting. Because when you do scratch the surface, so to speak, and start digging deep (again, so to speak), you find yet another pressing, serious environmental danger that plagues Hawaii: Large capacity cesspools.
And no, I’m not joking. Just ask Mr. and Mrs. Yong Su Ko. They own the company 1975 South Kihei Road LLC, which operates the Kihei Marketplace in South Maui. They’re learning firsthand about the troubles with big cesspools. But more on them later.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website defines an LCC as a cesspool “that discharges sanitary waste with human waste and serves: (1) a multiple dwelling; OR (2) a non-residential location with the capacity to serve 20 or more persons per day” (the LCC regulations specifically exempt those cesspools hooked up to single-family homes).
The danger is simple: “Raw, untreated sewage is discharged directly into the ground, where it can contaminate oceans, streams and ground water by releasing disease-causing pathogens and nitrates,” states the EPA website on cesspools. It doesn’t take a scientist to see the potential for trouble there.
“Anyone who’s gone snorkeling knows that there are freshwater seeps,” said Rob Parsons, the County of Maui’s Environmental Coordinator. “It’s pretty clear that what happens in the ground can make its way to the ocean.”
Scott Rollins, an official with the County of Maui’s Department of Environmental Management, agreed that the sludge in cesspools is a significant problem. “It’s probably 10 times the strength of the sewer system so it leaches into the soil,” he said. “It’s not an immediate concern, but [the sludge] gets in the ground eventually and will find its way into the ocean.”
What makes matters much worse is that federal officials say there are “thousands” of these things throughout Hawaii, potentially leaching sewage into groundwater. Turns out that LCCs are used “more widely” here than in any other state.
“The situation is that there are thousands of these large capacity cesspools in the state of Hawaii,” said David Albright, the manager of the EPA’s Ground Water Office for Region 9, which includes Hawaii. “There are thousands and thousands of these.”
That’s in the state. Rollins said he had no idea how many LCCs exist in the county. “Putting a number on it would be difficult,” he said, though he added that most would probably be in the Upcountry area.
That’s part of the reason why the situation at the Kihei Marketplace interested me. It’s not Upcountry, but in the heart of Kihei, right on South Kihei Road across from Kalama Beach Park. And there’s a large capacity cesspool there. I know this because on June 19, the EPA sent Yong Su Ko, the Kihei Marketplace owners, a letter saying that they need to remove their LCC as soon as possible. The June 19 letter asked Yong to send a detailed schedule of how exactly he was going to replace the LCC to the EPA office in San Francisco no later than July 5 (see “What Kihei Marketplace Must Do” for more on this). The letter ended with a vague threat: “Your compliance with these requests, and your efforts to properly close the LCC in accordance with your proposed schedule, are relevant to EPA’s consideration of any potential enforcement action.”
In case you didn’t know, LCCs have been illegal since April 5, 2005. That was more than seven years ago. In addition, no new large capacity cesspool construction could take place in the US after the year 2000, but owners of existing cesspools were given until 2005 to close them and either tie their buildings into the sewer system or find some other legal way to dispose of the sludge.
It’s unclear why it took the fed–or the state or county, for that matter–to move against Kihei Marketplace. At least one neighbor says the EPA action isn’t a surprise at all.
“I’m tired of smelling sewage there for the last three years,” said Dale Castleton, who owns a plant nursery around the corner from the Kihei Marketplace. “I saw them pumping it out a few weeks ago.”
(As a side note, Castleton knows a great deal about environmental non-compliance: in 2005, he ran afoul of the county for failing to deal with a massive coqui frog infestation at his nursery. After bad publicity, including an article in MauiTime, he began working with the Maui Invasive Species Committee and today operates a completely coqui-free business.)
In any case, the EPA isn’t shy about slapping considerable fines on those found out of compliance.
Two years ago, the EPA fined Fred Romanchek, who owns the Kula Lodge, $51,000 for operating LCCs at the restaurant. At the same time, the agency slapped $110,000 in fines on Gay & Robinson on Kauai for failing to shut down 40 large capacity cesspools.
Albright wouldn’t comment specifically on what actions the agency may take against Kihei Marketplace or why they’re only going after the company now, but he did say that the actions of the owners–how quickly they act on warnings, the time they’ve been out of compliance, etc.–will play a big part in determining whether the EPA goes down the enforcement road.
As for the Yongs, fixing the problem may not be so simple–or cheap. According to Parsons, coming into compliance could cost “$20,000 or more.” Not only do they have to hire contractors to remove the cesspool and build either a sewer hookup or a legal septic tank, but they have to obtain a variety of county permits, which could involve serious legal costs–and that’s all assuming they don’t get fined for being non-compliant for seven years.
When contacted for comment, an attorney listed as 1975 South Kihei Road LLC’s registered agent said that the Yongs are working diligently on fixing the problem.
“I just spoke with the property manager, and he said that they are aware of the situation and are working to rectify it as soon as possible,” said Honolulu real estate attorney Norman Cheng when I called for comment. “They hope to get it resolved soon.”
When I asked if I could speak directly with the property manager, Cheng demurred, saying “his English is not the best.”
WHAT KIHEI MARKETPLACE MUST DO
According to the EPA’s June 19 letter, Yong Su Ko and his wife will have to do a great deal to end Kihei Marketplace’s cesspool problems. Here’s the list of actions the EPA wants them to schedule:
• if possible, plan to connect the property to the county’s sewer system;
• if needed, hire a contractor to design an individual wastewater system (IWS);
• give your IWS plans to the state Department of Health (DOH) for approval;
• start building the IWS;
• finish the IWS and give a copy of the construction inspection report to the DOH;
• get final approval from the DOH on the new IWS;
• close the cesspool;
• give the EPA copies of all correspondence with the DOH on the new IWS.
About the Cover Artist
Jori Bolton is a Canadian editorial illustrator who explores stories and ideas through image-making. He paints colourful, conceptual and usually figurative pictures with a touch of whimsy to them.
Jori studied Illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, and has since worked for clients such as The Globe and Mail, the National Post and Alberta Venture. His images have also been honored in the illustration trade magazines Applied Arts and Creative Quarterly.
You can contact Jori and see his work online by visiting www.joribolton.com