Nearly a month after a sewage spill forced the shutdown of Ala Moana Beach, the city is once again telling us that it got the numbers wrong.
The city initially reported that more than 500,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled after heavy rains on Aug. 24.
Two days later, the city said much of the spill was extracted, so only 129,000 gallons spilled into the ocean.
But an official report sent to the state Department of Health shows that out of more than 587,000 gallons that spilled, 125,000 gallons were recovered. So more than 462,000 gallons went in the storm drains, which is more than three times the city’s estimate.
We wanted to know why there was such a big discrepancy and why the public was never notified.
The city’s Department of Environmental Services director says it was a technical calculation error. Lori Kahikina knew the error was made within a couple of days but decided it wasn’t newsworthy enough to inform the public.
Ala Moana Beach Park was a ghost town for three days after the sewage spill, and the city admitted it should have had one of two pumping stations at Ala Moana running instead of having it offline knowing that heavy rains were on the way.
The day when the city announced that Ala Moana was safe for beachgoers, city officials revised its estimate. Kahikina says staff told her that was a mistake within a couple of days.
“Why not let everybody know?” KHON2 asked.
“I guess I just didn’t want to confuse the public. It’s still a spill. It’s still a volume, so I wasn’t sure if 129 (thousand) versus 400,000 was newsworthy to get out to the public,” Kahikina said. “(It sounds like) we were trying to hide, but we weren’t. I just didn’t think it was newsworthy to say something.”
Kahikina says when her staff lowered the estimate, they subtracted the amount extracted from the ground and from the manhole pipes. But the amount extracted from the manhole pipes should not have been subtracted.
“These are experts that gave the numbers to you. Why didn’t they know better?” KHON2 asked.
“I agree. When the staff brought it to my attention, I was livid because you’re experts. You folks have been doing this for years. What was the discrepancy?” Kahikina said.
Kahikina adds that the most important part is that the numbers sent to the health department and other regulators are now accurate. The report also gives a more accurate timeline of the day the spill occurred.
The spill started at 5 a.m., the city was notified at 7:10 a.m., crews arrived on the scene a half-hour later, and the spill was stopped at 2:30 p.m.
The discrepancy in the estimate, though, is raising questions about trust among environmental groups.
“Now that we have this situation where what the public was told is drastically different from what actually happened, it’s hard for the public to trust the city in these kinds of situations,” said Marti Townsend, executive director of Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter.
With this new information, some are now questioning whether the water was tested properly and whether the beach should have been closed longer.
“This is real cause for concern. We need to be able to trust our public officials that the information that they are giving to the public is actionable information, things that we can make an informed decision about for our own safety,” Townsend said.
Kahikina says the change in numbers does not affect the procedures on opening the beach.
“So whether it was a 48-million gallon spill or a 10-gallon spill, the protocols all remain the same. We all have to continue to do the sampling and the sign posting until the Department of Health deems that the values came down low enough,” Kahikina said.
A state Department of Health spokeswoman confirms proper testing was conducted regardless of what the city reported as the amount.
We wanted to ask the mayor about this, but his spokesman told us the mayor had not been briefed. The report was dated Sept. 4.
In a statement, Jesse Broder Van Dyke said:
“The final spill report was prepared by the State Department of Health and I deferred to them on the timing to release it. I understand they provided it to other news outlets who had requested it last week. As soon as KHON2 expressed continued interest in the story we set up an interview with ENV Director Kahikina to answer all questions.”