Health officials blame cesspools for contaminated water, but solution unclear

The Hawaii Department of Health is blaming 88,000 cesspools statewide for high levels of bacteria in the water.

At a hearing before state lawmakers Wednesday, health officials pinpointed 14 areas they say may be impacting drinking and swimming waters:

  • Upcountry Maui
  • Kahaluu, Oahu
  • Keaau, Big Island
  • Kapaa/Wailua, Kauai
  • Poipu/Koloa, Kauai
  • Hilo Bay Area, Big Island
  • Coastal Kailua/Kona, Big Island
  • Puako, Big Island
  • Kapoho, Big Island
  • Hanalei, Kauai
  • Diamond Head Area, Oahu
  • Ewa, Oahu
  • Waialua, Oahu
  • Waimanalo, Oahu

The health department spent years researching the state’s cesspools. Officials told lawmakers they found areas of high concern, like Upcountry Maui and Kahaluu on Oahu.

In Upcountry Maui, officials discovered the drinking water has high levels of bacteria, or nitrates.

“The basic point is, we’re drinking wastewater that I don’t think everybody wants to do. The water is safe to drink. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem,” Deputy Attorney General Edward Bohlen told lawmakers.

“The water overall is safe to drink, according to maximum contaminate levels, or MCLs, in every part of the state. There are concerns, like in Upcountry Maui. It hasn’t reached maximum levels yet, but the levels we’re seeing in water to well shows a level of concern for us,” explained Keith Kawaoka, deputy director for the Department of Health.

In Kahaluu, officials found 740 nearby cesspools contributed to sewage contaminated surface waters, where there have been reports of skin infections.

The health department told lawmakers that federal guidelines state all cesspools, including residential, must be eliminated by 2050. It will cost $1.75 billion.

But the DOH says there are a lot of unknowns, which don’t sit well with lawmakers.

“What they admitted is they’re not sure how bad the problem is,” said Rep. Jarrett Keohokalole, who represents Kahaluu, Kaneohe, and Waiahole. “I don’t know what’s worse, what we do know, or what we don’t know. It’s pretty clear we need to come together and figure out a solution because we’ve been ignoring it for too long.”

Keohokalole says he will be introducing legislation to fix the issue.

The health department says it will be meeting with the community to come up with solutions.

You can check the quality of your home’s drinking water online.

Input your address and the Board of Water Supply’s website will first tell you if your water’s safe, and gives you the option to view the full report.

You can view test results, what kind of contaminants have been found in your water, and where your water is coming from.

Click here to access the Board of Water Supply’s water quality reports.

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