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Bribery scandal could focus discussion on closing cesspools, environmentalists say

The bribery allegations against J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen are also shining a spotlight on the legislation they supposedly killed regarding cesspools.
Published: Feb. 9, 2022 at 9:13 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 10, 2022 at 10:46 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The bribery allegations against former lawmakers Kalani English and Ty Cullen are also shining a spotlight on the legislation they allegedly derailed regarding cesspools.

Environmental groups say the sewage sites are an environmental crisis, but also see the scandal as an opportunity to fix it.

Hawaii has the highest number of cesspools per capita.

The possibility that bribes were given to kill bills to replace those cesspools could translate into action that environmentalists say is needed to protect groundwater and ocean resources.

“It just seemed like such a setup for a joke, to tell you the truth, people talking about cesspools and politics,” said Stuart Coleman, executive director of the group Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations.

But it wasn’t a joke.

“We assumed it was COVID, and that they were only focusing on COVID-related bills. That’s kind of what we were told,” said Coleman, who testified in favor of many cesspool-related bills.

English resigned last year, citing COVID. But federal prosecutors allege that he was bribed by a company in the wastewater management field to kill some of those bills.

“This is all extremely new news to myself, to the working group,” said Erica Perez, a senior program manager with the Coral Reef Alliance.

As members of the state’s cesspool conversion working group, Coleman and Perez said the outdated way of collecting untreated sewage — many at small rural residences — are a threat to the environment.

“We have about 88,000 cesspools across our state. They release 53 million gallons of raw sewage into our groundwater and shoreline every single day,” said Perez.

The state Health Department has ordered all cesspools in Hawaii to be upgraded, converted or closed by 2050.

“Right now we’re converting about 150 cesspools per year. But to convert 88,000 by 2050, we have to be converting more than 3,000 cesspools a year,” said Coleman.

“Cesspool conversion has been a hot topic since 2016, 2017,” said Perez. “The Department of Health has put in a great deal of effort in identifying cesspools and looking for ways to manage them.”

There have been several cesspool regulation bills since that time. Perez and Coleman noted the timing of the bribery allegations and the bills that failed at the legislature.

“It’s frustrating to see now that there was actually political games being played behind the scenes,” said Coleman.

Ultimately, they believe that the bribery scandal may help their cause.

“The intention of converting cesspools, the goal of converting cesspools, really goes toward securing human and coral reef health,” said Perez. “The ultimate goal is to have clean water in Hawaii.”

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