Cesspools Are Still in Use, and the EPA Is Keeping an Eye on Them

Most of us have no direct experience with cesspools, but the EPA is charged with the responsibility of monitoring them.   Although cesspools exist in other states, they are common only in Hawaii.

Cesspools, which are also called “dry wells,”  are underground holes used throughout Hawaii for the disposal of human waste.  Raw, untreated sewage is discharged directly into the ground via cesspools.  This is not a perfect disposal system, because it often contaminates oceans, streams and ground water by releasing disease-causing pathogens and nitrates.

Cesspools are also called “dry wells.” They are used more widely in Hawaii than in any other state.

Beginning in 2005,  EPA regulations required all existing large capacity cesspools to be closed and replaced with an alternative wastewater system.   Since 2000, EPA has prohibited the construction of new large capacity cesspools nationwide.  The regulations do not allow an extension of the deadline.

The EPA recently levied a substantial fine against the Lealani Corp. and Poipu Inn, Inc.,  owners of Brennecke’s Beach Broiler for failing to close two large capacity cesspools in Poipu,  Kauai.

The company will pay a $47,455 fine  and has closed and replaced its two large capacity cesspools. In addition, the company paid for and completed a supplemental environmental project costing over $500,000 to connect the County of Kauai’s restrooms at Poipu Beach Park to the Poipu Wastewater Plant.

A cesspool with its lid open–looking down.

EPA does not regulate the cesspools of single family homes or those of non-residential facilities that serve fewer than 20 persons per day and dispose of solely sanitary waste. However, these smaller cesspools may be regulated by state and local governmental agencies (e.g., departments of health).

The definition of a “large cesspool” is complicated (and can be read on the EPA’s website), but in general it means a cesspool that serves over 20 people.

Here is what a cesspool looks like and how it works:


Cesspools are “drywells” or underground holes that receive sanitary wastewater from building bathrooms and usually from the kitchens, clothes washers and/or dishwashers. A cesspool has an open bottom and/or perforated sides and the wastewater leaves the home and goes through a pipe into the underground chamber. While cesspools are designed to capture sanitary waste, they do not treat waste. The wastewater flows into the chamber; the wastes seep into the ground, but sometimes the solids remain inside the underground chamber.













More about cesspools from the EPA’s website.