I got a worried call yesterday afternoon from my friend Kaimi Hermosura, a taro farmer and lifelong resident of the North Shore. He and Sy Shim, another kanaka, were down at Kee, upset because the recent rains had flooded the “constructed wetlands” that were created to treat sewage from the toilets in Haena State Park.
The “constructed wetlands” had apparently overflowed into the real wetlands, as well as the adjacent fishpond and taro loi — just as Kaimi and other opponents of the system had feared it would — with some of the partially treated wastewater also possibly entering into the lagoon.
“The fishpond is all full and stink,” Kaimi said. “Visitors have been asking us questions because you can smell the sewage, but they're still letting tourists swim in the lagoon.”
Lifeguards were reportedly concerned enough about the smell to call the state Health Department, and Gary Uenten did come out and take samples on Thursday. Sy talked with him and said he asked Gary two questions: “Who's gonna be responsible for this clean up and when is it gonna start?”
However, no answers were immediately forthcoming. Sy and Kaimi were concerned about how the contamination would affect people, as well as the fishpond and the loi that had been planted with taro just six weeks ago. “This ain't no little health hazard, this is a major health hazard,” Sy said. “We've got thousands of people that go down there every day.”
The bathrooms are currently closed, and porta-potties have been set up at Kee. However, a North Shore resident reported seeing blue water spilling out of the toilets and flowing on the road on Monday. “It was gross,” she said.
“This is not OK,” Sy said. “We need to stop this kind of thinking that this is OK. It's time for us not to let stuff like this happen any more. The environmental breakdown that's happening right now is as bad as the Gulf [of Mexico oil spill] for us. We're worried about our own little environment around Kauai, our fishing grounds.”
The septic issues associated with the flooding again raise the question of just how many visitors can be accommodated at Kee — one of the island's most popular tourist destinations — and whether cultural or recreational uses should prevail.
I first covered this issue back in December 2009, when I attended an informational meeting on the constructed wetlands. I wrote an article for The Hawaii Independent, which unfortunately I cannot access on-line, but here's part of what I reported:
Although the state has been working with area residents for nearly three years on the project, lingering concerns remain about how the system will hold up under Haena's heavy rains, as well as possible contamination of the adjacent wetlands, which include a fishpond and taro fields (loi kalo).
Chad Durkin, project manager for Strategic Solutions Inc., said the [constructed wetlands] system was designed to withstand rainfall from a 100-year flood. However, in a worst-case scenario, partially treated wastewater could overflow into the wetlands, loi and fishpond.
Durkin described the process: Solids from the restroom would flow into two above-ground detention tanks, where a bacterial system would eat most of the waste. The tanks also would be pumped periodically, like a septic tank. Liquids would flow into a 5,000-square-foot “constructed wetlands” comprising a plastic liner filled with gravel or cinder and planted with native vegetation. The liquid would be cleaned as it runs through the rocks and plant roots, a process that takes about five days, and from there it would flow into an absorption bed some three feet below the surface, where it would gradually be adsorbed into the environment.
The system, which has a life span of 25 to 30 years, is designed to handle about 3,600 gallons of wastewater per day, the maximum that could be generated by the existing restrooms. Community members had previously resisted attempts to expand the restroom facilities due to concerns about overuse of the park.
The existing septic system would be kept as a backup, which raised the issue of whether the state would be diligent in keeping that system functioning. Durkin said the detention tanks also would need to be maintained to prevent sludge from building up and blocking the system.
After the meeting, Hermosura expressed continuing reservations about the project, saying it didn't belong in a sacred area like Kee and was incompatible with the cultural restoration now under way. “Theyíre just trying to accommodate the tourists,” he said. “It all comes down to the overuse of Kee.”
Kaimi and others had previously advocated the state “take the shit out of there” and dispose of it at a sewage treatment plan. The state resisted, citing cost and insufficient capacity, and instead went ahead with the experimental “constructed wetlands” approach.
But it appears that neither the original septic system nor the constructed wetlands are functioning, which is why the bathrooms are closed.
“After all this trouble, we're back to porta-potties,” Kaimi said.
"It's really messed up," Sy added.