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Honolulu's Sewage System Stinks.. Literally

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HAWAII SEWAGE
Sunday, April 16, 2006: Sign along Waimanalo Beach, Hawaii, warning people to stay out of the water. Beaches in Hawaii normally full of visiting tourists as well as local residents, are unusually empty this Easter weekend due to island wide leakages of raw sewage from consecutive weeks of heavy rains. (AP Photo/Ronen Zilberman) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Hawaii smells like blooming eucalyptus and fresh salt air, right?

Unfortunately, not always.

Earlier this week, Hanauma Bay -- a popular Oahu tourist attraction and Obama family favorite -- was closed to the public because of backed up sewer pipes. The Bay draws thousands of tourists a day as a world-famous snorkeling destination, but the site was closed on Thursday for "emergency maintenance." Apparently wastewater backup shut down the facility's restrooms and forced the beach's closure for about 90 minutes.

Over on the other side of Honolulu, the residents of Kakaako felt Hanauma Bay's pain. As an up and coming neighborhood, Kakaako is undergoing serious growing pains -- mostly in the olfactory system.

In response to numerous complaints and questions surrounding Kakaako's stench, the Honolulu City Council was recently forced to report about its causes and potential solutions. Pressure in the sewers, they concluded, was to blame, and they promised that remedies like new devices in manholes would alleviate the odor.

But with as many as 30 new buildings being planned in the neighborhood, including several luxury high-rises, many in Honolulu worry that the existing sewer system just isn't up to the task.

"I thought about moving because of the smells," Deborah Whisnand, a Kakaako resident told Hawaii News Now back in September.

"You can tell it's sewage smell," Regina Torres told KHON2. "It's very strong, it's hard to breathe at times. If you don't have AC in your car and you're driving by, it'll just hit you."

Honolulu is one of the only major metropolitan areas in the country that does not have a secondary sewage treatment. The city's current system filters the solids and then discharges the wastewater a few miles out in the ocean. But when the wastewater gets backed up, like at Hanauma Bay, or undergoes pressure in the pipes, like in Kakaako, the effects are immediately noticeable. On more than one occasion, the city has been forced to divert wastewater into the Ala Wai canal, which runs through the famous Waikiki, to divert pressure in the system.

In compliance with a 2010 settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Honolulu is in the process of installing major overhauls to Oahu's sewage system and the city's mayor promises that they're even ahead of schedule. But the schedule gives the city until 2035 to complete all of the E.P.A.'s requirements, which begs the question: will paradise stink until then?

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