Homeowners with cesspools and septic tanks may breathe freely now that lawmakers have killed a bill that would have required them to pay an annual fee for monitoring water quality.
Lawmakers had originally approved House Bill 903, but they changed their minds last week. That followed concerns raised by state and county officials that the fee would adversely affect Neighbor Island rural communities. Last Friday, 12 senators voted to hold the measure, effectively killing it for this year's legislative session.
"I had a big problem with this bill because it was trying to impose a tax on anyone without a sewer system," said East Maui Sen. J. Kalani English, who voted to kill the bill. The "vast majority" of Maui County does not have access to a sewer system, and forcing residents to pay a fee, unspecified in the bill, is not fair practice, he said.
English, who also represents Upcountry, Molokai and Lanai residents, called the bill an "Oahu-centric idea" because it failed to consider that most Neighbor Islands are not as developed as Oahu. Many areas are rural communities that still largely depend on "individual wastewater systems" like cesspools, septic tanks, aerobic treatment units or other systems that do not connect to a sewer, he said.
There are 13,684 cesspools and 5,084 septic tank systems in Maui County, according to state records. Hawaii Island has nearly 59,000 individual cesspools and septic systems.
"The bill doesn't look at the full impact, especially to our farming and agricultural communities," said former Maui County Council Chairman Danny Mateo, who now serves as an executive assistant to the mayor. "We talk about needing to support more agriculture in Hawaii, but we are creating bills that throw more obstacles and barriers for farmers and ranchers."
Last Wednesday before the bill's final hearing, Mateo, along with Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa and Mayor Alan Arakawa, traveled to Oahu to share concerns with legislators.
Bill supporters maintained that the added fees would have allowed the Health Department to verify that runoff or sewage from cesspools and septic tanks is not seeping into waterways and contaminating shorelines or swimming areas, especially when it rains.
"Individual wastewater systems, such as cesspools and septic systems, pollute the public's surface waters and groundwater, and pose a threat to public health and safety," state Health Director Loretta Fuddy said in testimony. "Since individual wastewater systems are not connected to a sewer system, owners of individual wastewater systems do not pay the substantial fees charged to those who are served by sewers that treat and mitigate wastewater pollution."
The Health Department does not have the staff or resources to monitor water quality without the additional fees, Fuddy said.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.