By Nancy Cook Lauer
West Hawaii Today
Responding to public opposition, the state Department of Health dramatically watered down its proposed rules phasing out cesspools, but it’s unknown if Gov. Neil Abercrombie will sign the package before he leaves office Monday. The new rules would apply to just 13 percent of the 49,344 cesspools on Hawaii Island, and 22 percent of the 87,969 cesspools statewide.
Instead of requiring all cesspools be converted to septic systems upon the transfer of property, the new rules would apply only to cesspools within 750 feet of a sensitive water body or near a drinking water well. In addition, the grace period for a cesspool to be converted upon transfer of the property will be extended from six months to one year. And, the rules won’t apply to transfers of property where money doesn’t exchange hands, for example, between family members.
The Health Department also proposes to offer grants or no- or low-interest loans for the conversion process. Lots of 1 acre or more in new subdivisions will be allowed to have individual rather than gang septic systems. Exemptions may be granted for properties that can’t accommodate a septic system and leach field. “Pretty much we covered most of the concerns that were voiced during the public comment period,” Sina Pruder, chief of the department’s Wastewater Branch, told West Hawaii Today on Tuesday.
The Abercombie administration had pushed for the rule change to meet federal clean water requirements and to battle pollution of coastal waters and drinking water supplies caused by human waste bacteria. Hawaii is the only state in the nation that still allows new cesspools to be constructed. Hilo Realtor Robert Williams called the revisions, “a step in the right direction,” but he said the rules governing small subdivisions weren’t addressed. The revised rules would still require subdivisions of 15 homes or less to have a central septic system. The current rule allows cesspools for subdivisions of 50 homes or less.
Williams said the rules would make it difficult to construct affordable housing, another state priority. “It makes doing a subdivision between 15 and 50 lots not practicable,” Williams said. Gov.-elect David Ige, while on the campaign trail, had criticized the rule-making process and may be unlikely to sign the package either. “It’s ridiculous that they would go ahead, develop these rules and drop it on the counties without any prior conversations,” Ige said at an Oct. 9 gubernatorial forum in Hilo. “There needs to be more consultation from the very beginning.”
Ige may favor a legislative approach rather than a rule-making one, said Williams, who has been following the issue closely. A bill favored by the administration failed in the past legislative session. “It’s not 100 percent dead, but it seems that the governor’s not likely to sign this,” Williams said. “I’m hopeful that they take the topic up under the new administration and hopefully, it’s done better.” Calls to the governor’s office were not returned by press time Tuesday. The Health Department received more than 230 public comments. The proposed revised rules were published Nov. 13 and can be found at health.hawaii.gov/wastewater/home/public_notice.