Staffing questions unanswered as wider impact of sewage spill revealed

What happened, and who was there to respond, as a massive sewage spill started to develop from Waikiki to Kakaako earlier this fall?

It’s an issue we’ve been following for months and started digging deeper into when the volume listed by the city kept changing.

The spill was estimated at about 500,000 gallons, but we’ve learned that the complete volume is hard to measure since the city admits it didn’t check every manhole that was overflowing, something it blamed on staffing.

We’ve been asking for more than a month for that staffing data, and now lawmakers and environmentalists are also calling for more transparency.

As Always Investigating started digging into how much sewage spilled onto the roadways and into the ocean, we found residences and businesses had also been severely impacted that day. Our questions about who was doing what and when have been met with silence from the city.

The city previously had explained that the August sewer system failure was caused as follows: At the Ala Moana pump station, one pump was down for maintenance and another failed just as a tropical storm passed near Oahu. That sent hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage into the streets and into the ocean.

Always Investigating obtained the original trouble calls and spill reports from the field, and that led us to find a much bigger community impact from the event.

It wasn’t just the ocean and streams that took the brunt of this runoff. Even residential and business locations got hit, too.

One business in the Waikiki area saw between six and 18 inches of raw sewage flood through its facility. They had to redo walls, floors and more to make everything sanitary, after tens of thousands of dollars of fixing.

Elsewhere, the Honolulu Fire Department called the city sewer trouble line about One Waterfront Plaza’s basement filling up with sewage-smelling water. That elicited an Environmental Services response three hours later and only a scope-out of the manholes on the street, according to the ENV report.

By the time ENV arrived, HFD — in the ENV response reports’ own words — “just brushed me off.”

We also found that in the Kaheka area, there was sewage backing up into nearby high-rises. According to a city report responding to one, city crews got there after noon and said by the time they responded, the folks at the building had already had to clean the site up but told them the city would be getting the bill for that.

Always Investigating talked to sources at the building who said that was actually they second time they’d been in touch with the city, and that the first time in the morning, they were told there’s nothing the city could do about it, because the lines in the area that morning were too backed up.

Many at all these building-overflow sties said they had made multiple calls to the city starting pre-dawn, so why did the trouble log we got only show one call from the locations, and no calls taken before 7 a.m.?

Because of things like that, and the long delays between logged calls and site responses, Always Investigating asked the city for more specifics on staffing, not just to answer the trouble-line and respond in the field, but also to staff the pump stations.

The city deems its first official notice of a spill coming around 7 a.m. from Honolulu Police Department officers calling in from the Atkinson area, but it also notes in a subsequent Health Department wastewater spill report that at 5 a.m., a high-water mark was traced in the Ala Moana pump-station wet well.

According to sources, operation standards should have the Ala Moana pump station staffed 24 hours and if anything goes wrong, an alarm should also sound at the Sand Island Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system.

So who was at Ala Moana when the wet well hit the high mark at 5.a.m., and was someone at the SCADA facility to see that alarm?

After more than a month of asking, with at least seven emails and numerous text and phone call follow-up messages, the city is not giving us any answers.

We turned to environmental watchdogs and area lawmakers.

“It takes this kind of public vigilance and this kind of constant oversight to really get the information the public needs,” said Marti Townsend, executive director of the Sierra Club. “It really shouldn’t be this hard. These are public funds. These are public resources. We all care about the health of our beaches and we don’t want sewers that release sewage into our public right of ways and our buildings and onto our beaches.”

“I want to make sure we’re using taxpayer money responsibly and I assure you, we could be using it for many other things than cleaning up an unnecessary mess,” said Honolulu City Councilmember Trevor Ozawa, who represents the district where the spill occurred.

“If the problem is that there weren’t the people to there to monitor the facility like they should have, then that’s something that needs to be addressed,” Townsend said, “and we’re only going to be able to figure that out when the city comes clean with what happened that day, what went wrong, and what are we going to do to fix it.”

In the absence of a response from the city, Always Investigating also submitted the questions in an official open records request to the Environmental Services Department, and CC-ed Mayor Caldwell’s public information staff. The city is required to at least acknowledge receiving that request within 10 days, and Monday marked business day 16 and counting with no response.

“I’m going to continue to ask more detailed questions myself. Hopefully we can get some responses ourselves,” Ozawa said.

“It shouldn’t be an acrimonious relationship,” Townsend said. “It shouldn’t be something where we feel somebody needs to hide this information. This is something we all should have access to.”

As for those condos and businesses that said they’d be billing the city, “I feel their pain and I understand how frustrating it is to lose money or lost the opportunity to spend time with your family to clean up a mess you didn’t create,” Ozawa said.

Always Investigating also asked city attorneys for information on property damage claims that include the time period of the spill. That department has at least acknowledged receiving that open-records request.

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