Oahu’s largest wastewater pump station was unattended before a mechanical failure there led to half a million gallons of raw sewage overflowing in August.
That’s among the questions the city has finally answered months after Always Investigating first started asking about staffing on the day of the spill.
It happened at the Ala Moana pump station when one pump was down for maintenance and another failed early Aug. 24.
The city had told us not enough staffing left them unable to check every manhole that was overflowing, but the city’s own trouble call notes that many sites — from streets to private business and residential — were awash in raw waste.
In addition to the fact that the Ala Moana pump station operator was not present at that site, we found out that a predawn alarm about the overflow was going off at a separate facility that was staffed, but no one alerted the person in charge of making the Ala Moana pump station operate smoothly.
This week, the city’s responses to our questions from earlier this fall arrived, and it turns out the Ala Moana pump station operator was not present at that site. The city says they don’t have to staff Ala Moana 24 hours a day because of offsite monitoring at the Sand Island Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition System (SCADA).
The state Department of Health says while someone may be working at the time, but not physically located at a particular pump station, “major pump stations are routinely staffed 24 hours a day.”
Ala Moana is major. It’s the largest pumping system on Oahu, handling the waste of half the island’s population, flowing tens of millions to more than 100 million gallons daily.
Turns out that person was at the Kahala pump station instead all shift. The city says that’s because it was under repair for a sinkhole and broken pipe, deemed a higher risk at that time.
“(Ala Moana is) a huge pump station. It should be staffed 24 hours,” said Marti Townsend of Sierra Club of Hawaii. “There should already be the bypass pumps in place, and if they’re not there, now this is an immediate urgent thing the city needs to be sure gets implemented right away.”
Our questions led to us finding out no bypass pump was implemented, the city says, because that would have taken days. But a longstanding mandate from the EPA after the big Waikiki overflow last decade says portable pumps should be part of the contingency plan at Ala Moana.
Also we uncovered no call was made to the Ala Moana operator after an Ala Moana alarm went off around 5 a.m. at the Sand Island SCADA, hours before police had to call the city from the Atkinson flood to alert them the system was overflowing.
“(It’s) unbelievable to think of what could have happened if we addressed the spill when alarms started going off versus two hours later,” Townsend said. “If we’re going to be using technology to help us make judgment calls about whether there’s an emergency, then we need to make sure that we actually listen to those alarms. We can’t let that kind of situation happen again where alarms are going off and we’re not reacting.”
The city now says staffing was within the normal range that day and that “bringing in more workers would not increase the effectiveness of cleaning up a spill.” The city already had nearly half its Vactor and cesspool trucks dedicated to just Atkinson Boulevard.
The city concluded its answers to us by saying “the Department of Environmental Services is always assessing its policies and procedures to improve response times” but that “ENV staff and truck operators acted properly and followed protocol in responding to the severe rain storm that day and put all available resources into place to stop the spill.”
The state Department of Health is investigating what happened with the spill but can’t give us the results yet because of “possible enforcement and ongoing investigation” and a potential settlement expected next month. We’ll report on that when they release the details.
“The goal of this entire regulatory oversight process and investigation is for us to figure out definitively what the shortfalls were and address those,” Townsend said, “and make sure that we can fix them so it never happens again.”