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Navy fined $8.7 million for sewage discharges into ocean around Pearl Harbor

USS Jefferson City (SSN 759) departs Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. (U.S. Navy photo by Amanda R. Gray)

The penalty is based on 766 counts of discharging pollutants into the ocean, 212 counts related to operation and maintenance failures and 17 counts of bypassing of filters without authorization.

The state Department of Health has fined the Navy $8.7 million for repeatedly discharging untreated and partially treated sewage into the ocean, as well as related maintenance failures at its Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam wastewater treatment plant—ordering the military to conduct extensive repairs in order to prevent a catastrophic failure at the facility.

The penalty is based on 766 counts of discharging pollutants into the ocean between January 2020 and July 2022 ; 212 counts related to operation and maintenance failures ; and 17 counts of bypassing filters without authorization.

The Navy has about 20 days to either pay the fine or contest the violations, which would trigger an administrative hearing.

The Navy didn’t immediately say whether it planned to challenge the order. A Navy spokesperson said in a statement that the Navy continues to improve operations at the plant and will continue to provide effluent samples to DOH and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Navy said that it has been working to shore up the facility since entering into a Federal Facilities Compliance Agreement with the EPA in June 2021.

“The Navy is on track to meet those FFCA obligations, including assessments, plans, and construction projects, which may also address some of the items in the DOH’s Sept. 22 (violation notice ), ” the Navy said in a statement.

The Navy’s own monthly reporting to regulators detected levels of enterococci in its effluent dating back to January 2020 that exceeded its permit conditions. The bacteria is used to gauge the levels of fecal matter in wastewater. The Navy is being fined for exceeding the limit on enterococci every day in 2020, as well as 276 days in 2021 and 122 days this year, according to DOH’s violation order.

DOH said that it immediately began consulting with the Navy about the exceedances, but it didn’t move to fine the military until maintenance failures were recently identified at the facility, including the likely source of the sewage contamination.

Matthew Kurano, an environmental health specialist with DOH’s Clean Water Branch, said the Navy took a long time to figure out the cause of the effluent limit violations and that it only recently identified a treatment bypass as the potential source.

Kurano said that earlier tests had indicated that the Navy’s disinfection system was working, but more recently DOH found out that sewage sludge was accumulating in the wastewater system near where treated effluent is discharged into the ocean.

The treated wastewater is deposited about a mile offshore in Mamala Bay.

Recent DOH inspections of the wastewater facility found other problems. During a July 26 inspection, Clean Water Branch inspectors found that six of eight ultraviolet channels, used for disinfecting wastewater, were inoperable, suggesting that the Navy was not able to adequately disinfect effluent during peak flows, according to DOH’s violation notice.

“It is unknown how long the facility has been operating with only two UV channels, but is believed to have been occurring for an extended duration, ” according to the violation notice.

The Navy is also being fined for failing to maintain its effluent pumps after military officials notified DOH on Aug. 22 that just two of the three pumps were operable after being damaged 10 days prior.

Kurano said two pumps are needed to handle peak flow in the wastewater system, while another pump must always be available as a backup.

“Had that last pump broken, they had no way of pumping their treated effluent out to the ocean, ” said Kurano. “That could have definitely caused catastrophic impacts to the plant and jeopardized both the workers at the plant and the people who rely on the wastewater system, which is all of Joint Base.”

Kurano said there could have been sewage spills throughout their collection system and at the plant, and that the Navy would likely have had to pump sewage, potentially untreated, into nearshore water bodies as an emergency measure.

DOH inspectors also found, after being alerted by the Navy, that a valve for a sand filter bypass pipe was stuck in an open position and that the Navy had failed to properly maintain aeration basin treatment units.

DOH outlined a list of correction actions with deadlines in its violation order. The Navy is being ordered to hire an independent third-party wastewater engineer within 30 days to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the facility. The contractor is required to assess all equipment, valves, pumps, pipelines, controls, components and structural parts of the facility and rank needed repairs. Within 90 days the Navy is required to have fixed the most critical deficiencies.

DOH is also requiring that the ultraviolet disinfection system be fixed within six months and all valves checked within three months, among numerous other requirements.

“I hope it sends a signal of how significant we think discharges are, ” said Kurano.

“The message with that really is if you are reporting violations, you need to correct them immediately. That is your obligation as a permitted discharger, and if you don’t correct them immediately, every day that you delay will accrue more penalties against you.”

NAVY WASTEWATER VIOLATIONS The state Health Department has issued an $8.7 million fine against the Navy for wastewater treatment deficiencies in the Pearl Harbor area. The fine is based on 766 counts of discharging pollutants exceeding permit limits, 212 counts of operation and maintenance failures, and 17 counts of unauthorized bypass.

Violations include :—Discharging effluent exceeding limits for enterococci (E. coli bacteria ) and other contaminants.—Failure to operate and maintain aeration basin treatment units, a sand filter bypass valve, ultraviolet disinfection systems and critical final effluent pumps.—Unauthorized bypass of sand filters due to leaving a bypass valve open and due to poor operation and maintenance.


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