Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii is upgrading the wastewater treatment plant at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii is upgrading the wastewater treatment plant at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (Denise Emsley/U.S. Navy)

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — The Navy is ramping up efforts to complete upgrades to its troubled wastewater plant at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-­Hickam as the facility ages.

The site is a flurry of workers and construction equipment working on projects throughout the plant and JBPHH public works officer Capt. Rob Kleinman said that so far there is roughly $75 million invested in contracts to refurbish or replace aging equipment and facilities.

The base’s wastewater plant occupies 11.61 acres and processes household and industrial wastewater, providing service for up to 40,000 people. But the facility operations have always been a challenge.

In September 2022 the state Department of Health slapped the Navy with a notice of violation and order that included an $8.7 million fine over repeated spills and maintenance problems with the Navy’s wastewater system. Its proximity to the ocean and Hawaii’s tropical climate have subjected it to heavy corrosion and the Navy has struggled to keep maintenance and funding at pace with the wear and tear of the elements.

Many parts of the facility itself are also old, and many of those who work there readily describe some systems as “antiquated“ and say they welcome the boost in resources. Plant manager Wayne Salas, who has overseen operations for almost four years after a decades-­long career working for the city said he’s hoping to see “more efficient equipment, easier maintenance and a smaller footprint to get a better product. So these things it’s coming with changes to bring the plant up to today’s technical standards.”

Kleinman said that the Navy’s top officials at the Pentagon have been “personally involved with helping make sure we get the appropriate resources to address the challenges we have here, which also looks at the current plan, and also helping to start to initiate the plant evaluation for what the future is.”

The plant was built in increments beginning in 1969 with most large-scale construction projects completed in 1997. Between February 2002 and December 2003 the Navy built a deep ocean outfall to drain waste at sea. Activated in 2005, the outfall is 2.4 miles long and expels wastewater 1.5 miles offshore roughly 150 feet beneath the ocean’s surface.

But by 2019 officials from the state Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch tried to inspect the plant and reported they found it in such a state of disrepair that they were unable to safely complete the inspection. They contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense.

After follow-up inspections, the EPA and Navy inspectors found that the plant had cracked concrete tanks, warped and disconnected parts in its machinery and severely corroded equipment. The EPA reported that the plant was well exceeding its discharge limits for zinc, cadmium, oil and grease, and pH and total waste toxicity under the Federal Clean Water Act.

In June 2021 the Navy entered a Federal Facilities Compliance Agreement with the EPA that required it to make a series of repairs and upgrades by the end of 2024. But challenges have persisted.

The September 2022 violation notice cited 766 counts of discharging pollutants into the ocean from January 2020 to July 2022 ; 212 counts related to operation and maintenance failures; and 17 counts of bypassing filters without authorization. The violation order said the Navy exceeded the limit every day in 2020 as well as 276 days in 2021 and 122 days in 2022.

Many of the current problems have centered on the facility’s sand filter, one of the last stages the water goes through before it’s discharged to the ocean outfall. The filter uses sand and water pressure to remove as much residual scraps of solid waste as possible from the water before it goes into an ultraviolet filter meant to remove any remaining bacteria before it is discharged.

But the system, which was built in the 1980s, has been increasingly experiencing “bypass“ overflow incidents in which partially treated water moves into the UV filter.

“Despite us bypassing we still are treating it, it still gets treated — all of it — through the UV,“ said Korey Tsubota, the plant’s water commodity manager. Still, plant employees say it’s an issue.

Collectively, millions of gallons of partially treated water had bypassed and Salas said the condition of the sand filter began “to kind of progressively get worse starting in September.”

Last month the Navy increased environmental monitoring and testing after roughly 1.75 million gallons of partially treated effluent bypassed the sand filtration system over several days, which according to the Navy was approximately 6% of the 30 million total gallons of waste processed at the plant during that period. The DOH said in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that it asked the Navy to increase sampling because of “the increasing frequency and magnitude of sand filter bypasses“ at the facility.

The Navy has a contract with North Carolina-based water treatment company Huber Technology to build a new disc filter.

“We knew this was a problem and we had awarded this contract before the massive issues,“ said Kleinman. “But obviously, the degradation curve didn’t match our material solution curves. And so we’ve now added additional money in November to that contract to speed this up.”

Kleinman said that he estimates it will ultimately cost “a few million (dollars )“ but that “we’re still in the middle of the contract evaluation, procurement proposals evaluation. So that will take care of the final number ... I’m not being cagey, I just don’t have it.”

The plant is mostly overseen and operated by civilians, but Kleinman said several service members have been temporarily assigned to duties at the facility “to augment while we’ve had some staffing challenges.” He said that while many of them don’t specialize in waste management, they’re able to provide labor to local workers to reduce some labor challenges.

One of them, Navy Lt. j.g. Joe Gramegna, had been working at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe before being assigned to the wastewater plant. He said that despite it being a less than glamorous job at face value, he works with “great people“ and feels like “we’re making progress every day.”

But ultimately the future could look completely different. Kleinman said that climate change, sea-level rise and other challenges are prompting the military to think long term about the facility. He said the Navy has hired engineers and consultants to weigh the pros and cons of retrograding the existing plant or building a newer, better one.

“I think all of us want to build a new plant, that just makes a lot of sense,“ said Kleinman. “Technology has changed since the late ’60s, basically the EPA was still being created and the world was very different then.”

Maintaining the existing facilities, building new ones and replacing old ones all come with challenges. The plant operates while sewage systems are constantly running. Even required maintenance can potentially disrupt those operations and cause risks for discharges and mishaps.

Salas said that they try to focus on “low-flow“ periods to focus on maintenance, explaining that “we minimize the amount of impact by doing it in the morning hours, like 2 in the morning where the flows are lower, switch things around, hydraulically, we can handle that. And so we just we kind of work around that low-flow schedule.”

The plant is preparing to utilize newly built facilities and equipment while taking others that need to be refurbished offline. Salas said that by the end of the process, operations at the plant should run more smoothly.

“We kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel within the next few months as (new systems ) come online so now our capacity gets back up,“ said Salas. “We are only at about 70% running so when we (complete ) the remaining projects we get back to 100%.”

(c)2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser


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