City fined $100K, must take ‘corrective actions’ for wastewater spills in 2015

The City and County of Honolulu must pay a $100,000 fine and make fixes in its work procedures after a series of massive sewage spills that closed down Waikiki Beach in the fall of 2015.

It’s a story Always Investigating has been following since the events took place. We’ve kept tabs on how much sewage actually spilled: 592,000 gallons combined from the Ala Moana pump stations and on the windward side.

We’ve tracked staffing levels at the facilities that are supposed to be on alert for issues and waited for more than a year for the city to officially sign off on the state’s findings and recommendation for changes to prevent future spills.

The final spill reports and enforcement action came out Friday. The state and city had been going back and forth on them since hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage overflowed along Ala Moana and in Windward Oahu.

On Aug. 24, 2015, approximately 462,050 gallons of a mixture of untreated sewage and rainwater overflowed from seven sewer manholes located in the Ala Moana/Kakaako area of Honolulu. The wastewater entered nearby storm drains or drainage channels before discharging into either the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor or Kewalo Basin Small Boat Harbor.

On the same day, approximately 4,950 gallons of untreated wastewater overflowed from a manhole at the Kaneohe Pre-Treatment Facility to Kawa Stream, and approximately 125,000 gallons of partially treated secondary wastewater overflowed from the Kailua Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant to Nuupia Pond.

The city cited big rain and reduced pump capacity at the Ala Moana station as the causes. The discharges impaired water quality for nearly six days.

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Now a consent order between the city and state Department of Health and a long-awaited final report on the spill reveal the extent of human error that compounded the problem.

Always Investigating asked, why did it take so long for the Administrative Order on Consent (AOC) to be reviewed and signed?

“It was very intense negotiations — what we would agree to give and what they would agree to allow us to give,” said Lori Kahikina, director of the city Department of Environmental Services.

“Basically, the city is acknowledging their shortcomings on this situation,” said department spokesperson Stuart Yamada.

The state found communication breakdowns, slow reaction times, and even deactivated overflow alarms at a Sand Island hub they call SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition).

Kahikina says when the spill occurred, “so many alarms were going off at SCADA that somehow they missed the Ala Moana pump station. They never notified collection system maintenance and they deactivated the alarm.”

Kahikina says the staff was disciplined over the errors, but no one was fired in the process.

“So the procedures that have changed immediately — even before we signed it — is that you can’t deactivate (the alarm),” she explained. “You need to physically call that division. He needs to be physically at the pump station and say ‘Yep, I got it. You can deactivate the alarm.'”

Always Investigating had previously found the pump station was unmanned when the spill triggered those alarms. The worker had been assigned to Kahala instead.

The city told us Friday it still has 24-hour shifts for Ala Moana, but can pull them off in case of other trouble calls.

The order aims to make sure multiple backups are in place for most of these kinds of scenarios. The city doesn’t know the cost yet, but has already started looking at better alarm software and remote capabilities, automatic notifications to pump station and maintenance staff, and mobile devices.

“I think with the technological improvements to their SCADA system — their monitoring and tracking system — it should go a long way in notifying a whole bunch of people simultaneously, so there’s no depending on any one person to notify the next person,” said Yamada.

The city says it has already completed new standard operating procedures required by the consent order, and aims to head off more big spills with better construction and maintenance coordination. The final spill report reveals a day or two of tasks in advance of the storm could have gotten more Ala Moana pump capacity back online and reduced the volume of what got out.

“The work order probably wasn’t picked up because Friday was a holiday,” Kahikina said, “and per the union agreement, we can’t force people to work the overtime. So it wasn’t that it wasn’t offered, it was offered. No one chose to work the OT. It is unfortunate that it wasn’t raised to a higher level, because we could have hired a contractor.

Always Investigating asked, “So to be clear, someone in management asked for it to be done, and the work was declined by the union staff?”

Kahikina replied: “It’s my understanding that’s what happened.”

The state order also has the city studying illegal tapping into the wastewater system and makes the city change the way it counts sewage spill volume.

“There’s a way to get a better grip on how much water was actually discharged,” Yamada said. “The estimates were based on what was actually observed on site, and in this case, it took them awhile to get out to the site.

“They have to figure out, ‘Okay, how long was this running and how much could this have been discharging?’ It could be significant. It’s not something you can easily just push aside,” he added.

When Yamada was asked what he meant by “significant,” he replied, “it could be at least a third more, 20 percent more, or you could say the deluge happened early on and it petered out. It’s hard to say.”

The city has 90 days to pay the $100,000 fine, which officials say will be paid out of sewer fees.

If the city does not comply with the times laid out in the order, DOH may issue stipulated penalties of $500 per day for delays.

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