Just how much raw sewage spilled into the ocean after a night of heavy rain? It’s a story we’ve been following since it happened at the end of August.
The city blamed a failure at the Ala Moana pump station. There are actually two pumps there, but one was down for maintenance and the other failed, sending hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage into the streets and into the ocean.
But after the city itself wavered on how much actually spilled, we started digging deeper.
Always Investigating examined original trouble calls, the field and final spill reports, and talked to witnesses and experts to get a better idea on the scope of the spill.
One source told us the total could be twice as bad as the last estimate.
On the morning of Aug. 24 at Ala Moana Boulevard and Atkinson Drive, manholes were popping. City crews responded after 7 a.m. to contain the sewage mess.
Initial estimates said more than 500,000 gallons of waste went into the ocean.
But a day later, city department supervisors recalculated to come up with much less, subtracting what the trucks sucked up. Emails reviewed by Always Investigating show Department of Environmental Services director Lori Kahikina emailing her deputy, “Are you serious! That’s newsworthy!!”
At a press conference the next day, the city trumpeted the spill only being 129,000 gallons.
City staff took issue with their bosses’ new lower number, because the sucked-up gallons were unrelated to the ocean spill. The city never corrected that to the media.
Weeks later, KHON2 reviewed the city’s report to the state Department of Health, and saw a bigger number was back.
KHON2 asked Kahikina at the time, “Why not let everybody know?”
Kahikina had responded, “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 129,000 versus 400,000 was newsworthy to get out to the public.”
“It’s unbelievable that she would feel it wasn’t newsworthy,” said a public worker who was upset by what went down. That person came forward to Always Investigating, but didn’t want to be identified.
“There was a lot of talk from people that were complaining that they were trying to cover up the spill, to lower the spill,” the worker said.
The city declined to put the department director on camera with us for followup, but Kahikina said in a statement that “there was never any pressure from the administration to lower the spillage amount and in fact, we ultimately provided a figure that was higher in an abundance of caution.”
KHON2 asked sources if there was any chance that the spill reports could just be honestly misunderstood.
“No,” one source responded. “Those spill reports have been used for years and on it, it specifically says how much went into the storm drain, how much can be recovered and it states exactly how many went into the ocean that was ‘unrecoverable.’”
When asked how big the spill really was, the source responded, “I think it was closer to between 800,000 and 900,000 gallons.”
The city’s own technology said the system’s well was full at 5 a.m., and that’s hours before crews started measuring the spill.
“If there were no trucks preventing it, it’s probably about another 250,000 to 300,000 gallons, just from Atkinson,” a source told Always Investigating. “That doesn’t include any other spill spots.”
Add to that other manholes connected to the same pump system that popped but had no field reports counting the gallons.
Always Investigating got all the original spill reports from the city to see what was measured when, and what wasn’t even counted. Here’s what we found:
- The day of the spill, just from the Atkinson area, field experts signed off on 435,101 gallons of sewage “unrecoverable” into public water. They gave specific gallons-per-minute measurements that they observed gushing from at the Atkinson manholes.
- A week later, another summary report was put on file by other city staff, which lists the Atkinson site, plus overflows which had no day-of, gallons-per-minute field reports but are mentioned as happening at Fisherman’s Wharf, Keawe Street and the Ala Moana pump station. All of that added just 12,000 gallons, about a small swimming pool, to the original Atkinson tally.
- The next week, the city’s filing with the state health department added a reference to McCoy Pavilion flooding. Again, no day-of field report or gallons-per-minute volume specific to that added site was turned in, and overall, the spill ticked up another small increase to 462,050 gallons total into the ocean.
That last report is a number experts on the inside still think is too low.
All those spots connect to the downed pump stations that move tens of millions of gallons of raw waste every day.
“It’s the center of everything,” one source said. “Everything goes there from town, Waikiki, from St. Louis, everywhere from that side back to the east it flows through that pump station.”
Kahikina’s statement said the figure reported to the state “is a conservative estimate projecting the maximum amount of wastewater that would have been discharged had the rate remained constant for the duration of the spill. The actual discharge is likely to have been significantly less.”
Whatever the amount of sewage that went into the ocean, water tests showed the coastal waters clear to swim in within days.
The city did not want to talk on camera but told us in a phone call that there was not enough staff to observe and measure each of those overflowing manholes on the day of the spill.
They have not yet responded to our questions seeking more details on how many staff were involved in the spill response.