Toxic sewer, bribery at center of Hawaii legislature’s case

HONOLULU – A former Hawaii lawmaker is expected in court Thursday over a federal corruption case that has drawn attention to an enduring problem in the islands: the tens of thousands of cesspools that dump 50 million gallons of raw sewage every day into the pristine release state waters.

Cesspits – underground pits that collect sewage from homes and buildings not connected to city services for gradual release into the environment – are at the center of the criminal case against former Democratic Rep. Ty Cullen. He has admitted to taking bribes in the form of cash and gambling chips in exchange for influencing legislation to reduce the widespread use of cesspools in Hawaii.

The toxic pits spread in Hawaii in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. when investments in the sewage system did not keep pace with rapid development. Today, Hawaii has 83,000 of them — more than any other state — and only banned new cesspools in 2016.

Now Hawaii is in a hurry to get rid of them because of the environmental damage they cause and the risk of groundwater contamination.

Public spending on such efforts and a lack of knowledge about the specialty can create conditions ripe for corruption, said Colin Moore, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii.

“It just creates a lot of opportunity because comparisons are so difficult, especially in a really small market like Hawaii where there might only be two or in some cases even one contractor that can do the job,” Moore said. “Who says the offer is excessive?”

Cullen faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted in US District Court on Thursday.

Prosecutors have recommended that he spend between two and two and a half years in prison. His attorney has asked for a 15-month sentence given what he called Cullen’s “significant assistance” to investigators.

Related criminal cases have led to guilty pleas Honolulu businessman who bribed Cullen and a former Majority Leader in the Senate.

An estimated 16% of Hawaii housing units have sumps, but the percentage is much higher on more rural islands like the Big Island, where more than half of the homes have sumps. They can be found everywhere from the mountains to the coast and even in urban neighborhoods just a few miles from downtown Honolulu.

In these homes, wastewater from toilets and showers flows through drains into a pit in the yard, rather than into a sewer and central treatment plant. Raw sewage—including all of its bacteria and pathogens—then seeps out of the pit into the soil, groundwater, aquifers, and ocean.

The wastewater can contaminate drinking water and encourage the growth of reef-choking algae in the ocean. As sea levels rise due to climate change, scientists expect the ocean to increasingly inundate cesspools on coastal properties and push sewage into waters where people swim.

Such concerns have prompted lawmakers to draft legislation to phase out cesspools. In 2017, the state enacted a law requiring homeowners by 2050 to close their sumps and connect them to sewage systems or install cleaner on-site waste treatment systems that break down solids in a tank and a disposal field removes sewage and pathogens while the water is safely discharged into the community environment is returned.

This year, lawmakers are considering additional legislation, including a bill that would shorten the conversion deadlines to 2035 and 2040 for cesspools in more environmentally sensitive areas. Another would set up a pilot program to expand the county’s sewage systems.

In a plea agreement, Cullen admitted receiving envelopes of money to help pass a bill related to cesspit modifications. Part of the time he took bribes was vice chairman of the House of Representatives’ powerful Treasury Committee.

Cullen accepted a total of $23,000 from Honolulu businessman Milton Choy, who is scheduled to be sentenced next month. He has also admitted accepting $22,000 worth of gaming chips from Choy during a trip to a wastewater conference in New Orleans.

Court documents say that Choy’s company regularly contracted with government agencies to provide wastewater management services and was well placed to benefit from publicly funded cesspool conversion projects.

J. Kalani English, a Democrat and former Senate Majority Leader, has previously been sentenced to three years and four months in prison for accepting bribes from Choy, including in return for influencing cesspool legislation.

Regardless, a former Maui County sewage manager admitted taking $2 million from Choy in exchange for managing at least 56 exclusive supply contracts for his company. He was sentenced to 10 years in February.

Prior to his sentencing, Cullen wrote in a letter to Judge Susan Oki Mollway that he had made “egregious mistakes” and felt “regret, shame, embarrassment and disgrace.”

“I ask for forgiveness and the opportunity to give myself time to learn from my mistakes. I will work hard to share them with others and make my mistakes a teachable moment,” he said.

Meanwhile, observers noted the many cutting jokes that can be made about the case.

“We used to joke, ‘Oh, now these politicians gave the cesspools a bad name,'” said Stuart Coleman, a longtime advocate for closing cesspools in Hawaii and executive director of the nonprofit Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations.

“It’s not a big jump when you talk about this kind of corruption and (then) you talk about the cesspool of politics.”

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Toxic sewer, bribery at center of Hawaii legislature’s case

Sarah Y. Kim

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