Maui News staff writer Harry Eagar’s Nov. 15 column expressed unfounded opinions that trivialized a serious community issue. Sewage disposal is no laughing matter. It is a quality of life issue for all who live on Maui, our visitor industry and those voiceless ones who inhabit Maui’s waters.
Concerns about the connection between effluent disposal, water quality and reef decline are shared by scientists and environmental professionals tasked with safeguarding water and natural resources. The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources (hawaii.gov/dlnr/dar/pubs/MauiReefDeclines.pdf) identified land-based pollutants as part of the problem causing coal decline. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered Maui County to characterize the pollutants in the effluent and to identify where the effluent goes after injection. The state Department of Health has declared coastal waters near the wells as impaired due to presence of nutrients and other pollutants (hawaii.gov/health/environmental/env-planning/wqm/2006_Integrated_Report/2006_Chapter_IV_Assessment_of_Waters.pdf).
There is substantial evidence that the effluents injected into the groundwater at county treatment plants is reaching the ocean. The presence of effluent indicators in ocean water was found by the University of Hawaii and the U.S. Geological Survey. There is no scientific evidence supporting Eagar’s assertion that coral not only eat sewage, but love it. Coral get the majority of their energy from single-celled algae that live within their tissues, and respond negatively to elevated nutrient levels from sewage that affect the efficiency of this well-tuned symbiosis. Ecologically, sewage effluents enhance the growth of fleshy algae and cyanobacteria that can out-compete coral for space. Even if coral can grow in the presence of sewage, as at some sewage outfalls, there are changes in both species and genetic diversity that are not good for the coral reef ecosystems.
Eagar describes a test for solids, which is only one characteristic of wastewater that measures suspended matter. There are other tests that measure dissolved materials or other pollutants, such as bacteria, that are invisible to human eyes. Even without understanding of bacteria many ancient civilizations understood the need for careful sewage disposal to avoid the spread of human diseases, however much of this knowledge was lost or ignored in the Middle Ages. Eagar implies we should employ the sanitation technology of London in Chaucer’s time (1340-1400), which consisted of emptying human waste into the streets from which it flowed into natural streams, resulting in widespread disease.
The classification of our reclaimed wastewater as R1 or R2 is based on measurements of the solids and microorganisms present because sewage effluents can contain high levels of human pathogens (disease-causing organisms) and solids can shield microorganisms from disinfection processes that would inactivate or destroy them. R-1 quality can be used for irrigation in public parks or at schools. R-2 and R-3 is of lesser quality and restrictions allow reuse only in areas where exposure to humans is minimal. Wastewater is injected because we do not have adequate disinfection process and storage capacity to treat and recycle all of the wastewater that we create. Some of the effluent that is injected is not disinfected.
The Maui Wastewater Community Working Group, convened by Mayor Charmaine Tavares to find ways to end injection and increase reuse of wastewater, did not “convict treated sewage put down wells of killing reefs.” In fact, the group was discouraged from discussing any connection between wastewater injection and reef decline. Instead we focused on the fact that fresh water is a scarce resource and looked for beneficial ways to use the more than 10 million gallons of wastewater that are injected daily by the county. This effort to reuse water has widespread support within our community.
A fortunate outcome of the controversy surrounding these issues is the increased level of awareness and interest within the community regarding the status of our wastewater and water reuse infrastructure. I encourage everyone to ask questions and educate themselves by looking at the facts rather than opinions. It is only by working together as a community that we can provide safe and clean water that is critical to public health and quality of life.
* Robin S. Knox is an environmental professional with 28 years of experience in clean water regulation, wastewater engineering and water quality management. She is a member of the Maui Wastewater Community Working Group.