City stops regular stream cleaning because of permit problems

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – The city of Honolulu says it has shut down its routine stream cleaning operations while it tries to work out environmental permitting issues with the state and federal government.

The city used to clean out stream beds and stream mouths year round, in preparation for the rainy season, to help prevent flooding. But the city has suspended that practice and is now only responding to emergency stream cleanups.

City crews were doing routine work opening the stream mouth at Ulehawa stream in Lualualei along the Waianae coast October 27, 2011 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped the operation, according to city spokeswoman Louise Kim McCoy.

The Corps of Engineers regulates streams and rivers under the federal clean water act, protecting waterways from silt, trash and other pollutants.

"It essentially shut down all our stream cleaning operations," said Westley Chun, director of the city department of facility maintenance.

"We're only able to touch the streams under emergency conditions," he said.

Chun said only when flooding is underway or already happened, such as when boulders needed to be cleared in Kahaluu earlier this month, will city crews be allowed to do stream work using heavy equipment.

A federal permit allowing for routine city stream maintenance expired around 2002, according to Gary Gill, deputy state health director.  The state has carried out the federal Army Corps of Engineers Clean Water Act regulations in the islands, as in many other states.

The Army Corps of Engineers "is working with the Department of Health to modify the clean water act requirements contained in the existing Corps statewide regional permit ... to make it easier for the city to conduct this work," said Joseph Bonfiglio, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Honolulu District.

Bonfiglio said the agency hopes to resolve the issues by later this spring.

"The Corps' Regulatory program is designed to protect the nation's aquatic resources. This is accomplished through the issuance of permits for projects that have undergone careful evaluation in light of applicable laws, regulations and policy (including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act ) to ensure that no action authorized by our program will have an adverse impact on the overall public welfare," Bonfiglio said.

"It is our mission to provide strong protection of the Nation's aquatic environment, including wetlands; to enhance the efficiency of the Corps administration of its regulatory program; and, to ensure that the Corps provides the regulated public with fair and reasonable decisions," he said.

In the meantime, Chun said city crews can only use hand tools instead of bulldozers to do routine stream cleaning work.

"It really makes it hard for the general public, because it really puts them at risk to flooding until we can get to their stream," Chun said.

Chun said he hopes the city, the Army Corps of Engineers and the state health department can work out a new arrangement soon.

"Rather than being able to take our time and slowly work at cleaning our streams throughout the year and preferably during a dry period, we're acting in a reactive mode in the middle of a storm," Chun said.

The city said it returned to Ulehawa Channel in Lualualei to remove some debris a couple of weeks ago after consulting with state health department and Army Corps of Engineers officials.

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