Kaimana Beach Coalition fought to protect health of Waikiki swimmers

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Rick Bernstein

Last week’s condemnation of the Kaimana Beach Coalition by engineer Steven Baldridge was mercifully muted by self-promotion and unspoken loyalty to Friends of the Natatorium (“With drop-in pool, Natatorium might live to splash another day,” Gathering Place, Aug. 15).

The Kaimana Beach Coalition became involved in the Natatorium issue for good and legitimate reasons.

In 1997, when Mayor Harris announced his intention to renovate the Natatorium and have nightly “hula shows” to help pay for the construction and maintenance costs, we immediately objected. As beach users, we understood the negative effects of forcing commercialization on this already crowded recreational area.

As swimmers, we wondered what effect the water from a slow circulating and high-use swimming pool would have on our health. We soon found out.

Workmen repair the steps at the Waikiki Natatorium in 1999.

Dr. Bruce Anderson, then deputy director of health for the environment and an epidemiologist, shared our concerns. Testifying at the City Council he said he would not grant a Department of Health permit to the Natatorium unless the Harris administration could scientifically assure the water quality of the swimming pool. It was Anderson’s responsibility to protect the public from outbreaks of staph and other infections.
Because of Anderson’s refusal to grant the permit, the City Council was unable to take action and shelved the bill, which would have appropriated $11.5 million for the renovation and the Special Management Permit to proceed with the work. Mayor Harris chaffed mightily.

Suddenly, there was a phantom “legal opinion” offered by the state attorney general office under pressure from the mayor. The “opinion” stated that “the Natatorium is not a swimming pool,” but something else, and consequently did not need a DOH approval to proceed. Based on this “legal opinion,” the Council quickly appropriated the money and granted the permit.

After Anderson’s public pronouncement, we were extremely concerned about the health of beach users, especially the youngsters and senior citizens who frequent the calm waters next to the Natatorium where discharge from the heavily used and sometimes uncirculated pool waters would discharge.

Attorney Jim Bickerton, a beach user and father of small children, joined us and challenged the “legal opinion” in court. Judge Gail Nakatani ruled that the “legal opinion” was wrong and that the Natatorium was indeed a swimming pool in need of health and safety rules and a permit from the DOH. She ordered an injunction to stop all work until new rules and safety measures were drafted.

The rule-drafting process was difficult because there are no other untreated or unfiltered saltwater swimming pools in the United States. For health reasons, they were all closed and demolished decades ago. There were no existing rules or standards to use as a guide to draft new regulations. Because of this, a committee of water quality experts, scientists and swimming pool experts was assembled to come up with acceptable health standards. This process took two years.

The new rules call for a cleanable, hard-bottom pool instead of the planned sand bottom, which had the potential to build up bacteria. Unlike the planned and unreliable tidal flushing system, electrical pumps are now required to guarantee circulation of the pool water. This is critical to maintain uniform water quality, assuring the safety of swimmers and neighboring ocean users.

Had it not been for the actions of the Kaimana Beach Coalition, these measures would not be in place today.

I urge people to call their City Council member and let them know how you feel about spending another $6 million on the Natatorium, only to have it locked and gated once again.

Rick Bernstein is a member of the Kaimana Beach Coalition.