This the a bit different from the Off Deadline column in today’s print edition. The editors took out the joke about vitamin C, and I’ve put it back in.
Psst! Wanna know a secret? The environmentalists don’t want you to hear this, but corals eat sewage. Really. They love the stuff. The Maui Wastewater Working Group held 13 meetings to convict treated sewage put down injection wells of killing reefs. It’s too bad they didn’t take a field trip to the Central Laboratory at the Kihei Wastewater Treatment Plant to see some effluent in action. Such visits are discouraged by the health monitors, but my wife does the testing and I’ve watched her. There are several tests, but the relevant one for injection wells puts a sample of treated wastewater – the PC name for sewage – through a centrifuge, which deposits whatever sewage is left on circles of glistening white filter paper. Filter is the key word here. Corals (and marine worms and lots of other reef critters) are filter feeders. The Kihei and Lahaina plants make R1 effluent, the good stuff, while Kahului makes R2, not as clean. Usually, when the plant is functioning well (which is most of the time), on most of the discs I cannot tell any difference between the clean and the sampled filter paper. On a few, there may be the faintest brown tinge. It takes a magnifying glass to tell sometimes. Up to the 1970s, Maui didn’t treat sewage, except in cesspools. It was pumped into the ocean. In Paia, the benjos spilled into open channels that ran into Kuau Bay, no different from the way London handled its sewage in Chaucer’s time. The reefs didn’t seem to mind. Of course not. Filter feeders strain bits of organic matter, bacteria etc. out of water, either with miniature versions of a humpback whale’s baleen plates or with nets of sticky mucus. They do not distinguish one bit of organic matter from another. At a presentation at Wailea many years ago, University of Hawaii oceanographer Steve Dollar flashed a slide of some of the prettiest coral you ever saw, all yellows, purples, browns, greens, pinks. The crowd – all greeniacs except me — sighed with pleasure at nature’s beauty, until he pointed out to them a black circle: the Honouliuli sewage plant outfall, the one the Environmental Protection Agency is forcing Honolulu to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. There may be good reasons for cleaning up Honouliuli, but helping the coral isn’t one of them. There are more people on Maui now than in the ’70s, maybe three times as many counting tourists. But the nutrient loading from sewage dumping is down maybe a thousand-fold. If something is harming the reefs, it cannot be treated sewage effluent fed into the ocean through injection wells. At least, not the organic part. It might be the vitamin C that the health nuts take that passes right through them unaltered into the sewage and out into the ocean. Instead of closing injection wells, maybe we should shut down the vitamin counters at the health food stores. Much more likely, if human sewage is what is impacting the reefs, is leakage from cesspools. This used to be an issue for the late Council Member Tom Morrow. He told me that in the still water of the caves under Hana Bay, you could taste the sewage. I never made the experiment, but since there isn’t any sewage treatment plant within 30 miles of Hana, if it was true, it wasn’t from injection wells. My parents used to live in a place called King’s Grant, a 5,000-acre thumb of land that stuck into Lynnhaven Bay in Virginia. In the 1920s, Lynnhaven oysters were reputed to be the finest in the world, and 500 men made a living tonging them up. Back then, King’s Grant was occupied by a few farms. When my parents moved in, in 1965, it was part of a development of 5,000 houses. The houses fed into sewers, and the sewage was taken to a plant many miles away from Lynnhaven Bay, but the oyster beds were condemned. Those 5,000 homeowners had about 5,000 dogs and 5,000 cats, and their sewage wasn’t treated. It ran off into the bay and contaminated the shellfish. Forget the injection wells and clean up the cesspools.