Cleaning Up Hawaii's Sewage

Hawaii is renowned for its blue waters, high surf, rich biodiversity, and paradise vibes. Hawaii is home to 77 species of endangered animals, and 424 species of endangered plants. Pollution and habitat disturbances are two key causes of species loss in Hawaii and elsewhere. Honolulu’s Sand Island Wastewater Treatment plant has had a particularly devastating impact on local water quality and wildlife. The Clean Water Act requires “secondary treatment” of sewage facilities that are unable to comply with other requirements of the law. Sadly, Honolulu fought hard to not upgrade its systems to allow for secondary treatment, and repeatedly fouled coastal areas and the Pacific Ocean with massive sewage dumps of tens of millions of gallons at a time.

Sewage spills like these tend to occur at the same time as significant weather like rainstorms or hurricanes, but this kind of pollution is avoidable. Sewage systems require maintenance and occasional upgrades, which require funding. This is especially true in areas with growing populations, like many coastal cities have experienced for decades.

In 2004, OCE partnered with a local Sierra Club Chapter and Hawaii’s Thousand Friends to file suit against the City and County of Honolulu for violating the Clean Water Act with repeated sewage spills from wastewater treatment plants including the Sand Island plant. 


The story in Honolulu was akin to other cities with sewage infrastructure problems. Officials at the wastewater treatment plants did their best to treat, contain, and properly dispose of sewage, striving to protect human health and environmental quality in the process. But these officials struggled with underfunded and neglected infrastructure. With each major sewage spill, local officials were quick to acknowledge flaws in the sewage system, and predictably attempted to appease residents by insisting that the City and would have more success preventing pollution in the future.

About six years after we filed suit, we finalized our agreement and settlement with the defendants. Honolulu agreed to address Clean Water Act compliance with a schedule that can be enforced by a court, phasing in major upgrades, repairs, and programs by deadlines in 2020-2035. Honolulu was also required to pay a penalty for repeated pollution in violation of federal law, and estimated that the necessary changes to the sewage systems would be several billion dollars, long overdue investments in critical infrastructure of the people (and wildlife) of Oahu. Together with our co-plaintiffs, OCE also insisted that our agreement with Honolulu included preventing millions of gallons of raw sewage from being discharged, and secondary treatment of around 100 million gallons per day. By increasing treatment levels, we ensured that Honolulu will reduce its discharges by 3 million pounds of total suspended solids and 30 millions pounds of biological oxygen demand annually.