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Navy works to repair wastewater plant amid more issues

Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam/Facebook)

State and military officials say they are working together to make repairs and improvements to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-­Hickam’s leaky wastewater treatment plant.

State and military officials say they are working together to make repairs and improvements to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-­Hickam’s leaky wastewater treatment plant. But they’ve offered scant details on what exactly is being done to fix the facility as spills and discharges of untreated or partially treated wastewater have continued even as the Navy says it won’t pay a fine issued by the state.

The most recent incident occurred March 7 when approximately 14, 000 gallons of partially treated wastewater was released from the facility.

According to the Navy, JBPHH had an electrical power spike at 11 :45 a.m. that resulted in the plant being without power for approximately two minutes. As a result, the water treatment process was “interrupted for a few minutes, ” and the partially treated water was discharged into Mamala Bay through a deep ocean outfall approximately 1.5 miles from shore.

It was the first reported incident this year involving the facility, but it comes after several others in 2022 as the Navy finds itself increasingly scrutinized over its environmental record in Hawaii. On Sept. 27 the state Department of Health slapped the Navy with a notice of violation and order that included an $8.7 million fine over repeated spills and maintenance problems with the Navy’s wastewater system. DOH gave the Navy 20 days to either pay the fine or contest the violations.

But the Navy argues it legally can’t pay the fine because the state is barred from seeking punitive fines. On Oct. 11, Navy Capt. Cameron Geertsema sent a letter to DOH requesting a hearing to dispute the fine, writing that the Navy wants to “better understand your goals and incorporate those into a resolution that addresses recent incidents in a sound, environmentally compliant, cost effective, and timely manner.”

In an emailed statement, a DOH spokesperson said that since issuing the fine, the agency “has been actively engaged in technical meetings with Navy personnel responsible for operation of the (plant ).” The statement also said that there “has been no legal resolution to the enforcement action to date, however, corrective actions to address major findings of the (notice of violation and order ) have begun.”

When asked what sort of technical meetings the two are engaged in, the Navy responded with an email that “in these meetings, Navy and DOH wastewater subject matter experts are discussing immediate actions the Navy has accomplished and ongoing planning for interim and long-term corrective actions.”

When asked what “corrective actions ” the Navy and DOH are working on, the Navy said that “corrective actions entail construction projects at the WWTP, condition and operations assessments, repairs to treatment processes, and other preventative maintenance.”

In the Navy’s media release on the March 7 incident, it said that the facility “utilizes a biological treatment process, settling tanks, sand filtration and UV disinfection, which is one step more than most wastewater treatment plants.” But investigations over the years by regulators and internally by Navy officials have raised serious concerns about conditions at the facility.

In 2019, officials from the DOH’s Clean Water Branch tried to inspect the plant but reported they found it in such a state of disrepair that they were unable to safely complete the inspection. State officials contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense about the situation.

After follow-up inspections, both the EPA and Navy inspectors found the plant had cracked concrete tanks, warped and disconnected parts in its machinery and severely corroded equipment. The EPA reported the plant was well exceeding its discharge limits for zinc, cadmium, oil and grease, and pH and total waste toxicity under the Federal Clean Water Act.

In June 2021 the Navy entered a Federal Facilities Compliance Agreement with the EPA that required it to make a series of repairs and upgrades to the facility by the end of 2024.

But problems have continued. In its Sept. 27 notice to the Navy, DOH cited 766 counts of discharging pollutants into the ocean from January 2020 to July 2022 ; 212 counts related to operation and maintenance failures ; and 17 counts of bypassing filters without authorization. The violation order said the Navy exceeded the limit every day in 2020 as well as 276 days in 2021 and 122 days in 2022.

Just two days after the DOH slapped the Navy with the fine in September, another wastewater spill of 1, 000 gallons poured into Pearl Harbor from a 12-inch wastewater line that broke. Utility workers secured the leak and installed a plug, but the Navy said the leaked wastewater was “unrecoverable.”

On Dec. 30, more sewage poured into the harbor. Approximately 3, 500 gallons of untreated wastewater spilled into Pearl Harbor when an air-release valve in a Navy distribution line apparently failed. About 5, 000 gallons of the untreated wastewater gushed from the distribution line near the Lake Erie Street /Hickam Bike Path, but the Navy said approximately 1, 500 gallons was recovered before it spilled into the harbor.


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