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Federal court: Maui County violating Clean Water Act by using injection wells

By Staff | Jun 12, 2014

HONOKOWAI – On May 30, the federal district court in Honolulu ruled that Maui County is violating the Clean Water Act by using injection wells to discharge wastewater from a sewage treatment plant in West Maui.

According to Earthjustice, the court concluded that most of the three million to five million gallons of treated wastewater Maui County’s Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility dumps into the wells each day flows through groundwater and emerges offshore of Kahekili Beach Park, where the wastewater-laden groundwater “substantially affects the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the ocean water.”

The court will impose civil penalties following a hearing set for March 17, 2015.

County Communications Director Rod Antone said, “Although we respect the court’s decision, we are still reviewing

the court’s ruling and evaluating our options.”

West Maui County Councilwoman Elle Cochran was “overwhelmed with mixed feelings of joy and frustration” over the ruling.

She noted, “In my earlier days, working with the DIRE (Don’t Inject-Redirect) Coalition, we advocated the reuse of recycled wastewater, rather than injecting it into wells that eventually leach into the ocean.

“In 2011, one of my primary initiatives upon being elected into office was advocating for phasing out the use of injection wells. Fortunately, the idea was met with overwhelming support from most of my fellow councilmembers.

“As a result, the council approved the appropriation of $700,000 for West Maui recycled water system improvements and $500,000 for Central Maui wastewater system improvements in the (Fiscal Year) 2012 Budget.

“Support for wastewater infrastructure upgrades continued in the FY 2013 Budget, when the council approved an additional $3.5 million for recycled water system expansions.

“Time and time again, we continue to hear claims by this administration that injection wells are not proven to promote algae growth or cause damage to our reefs. This position by the administration has stymied all of the community’s efforts to protect our reefs.

“It is unfortunate that after years of forewarning, public beseeching and tireless petitioning to phase out injection wells, it takes a federal court ruling and the threat of $100,000 per day in fines for the hope that this administration will act accordingly.

“Enough time and resources have been wasted through this denial-based inaction. The time has definitely come for us to reconcile our mistakes and work towards achieving a solution.

“I, for one, will support any changes required for this county to be in compliance and to stop the inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars… The work is not finished, but great strides have been made.”

Cochran thanked the Division of Aquatic Resources, DIRE Coalition, Coral Reef Alliance, Earthjustice, Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Kaanapali Makai Watch, Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, Maui Reef Fund, Maui Tomorrow, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation, West Maui Preservation Association, West Maui Ridge to Reef “and everyone else who had a hand in such tireless efforts to protect our waters for future generations to come.”

In 2012, four Hawaii community groups – Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Surfrider Foundation, West Maui Preservation Association and Sierra Club-Maui Group – filed suit under the federal Clean Water Act to stop Maui County from discharging wastewater into the ocean from its Lahaina treatment plant without a permit. Their lawsuit followed years of unsuccessful efforts to resolve the issue out of court.

Nearly two million gallons of treated wastewater injected into wells at the facility each day surface offshore of popular Kahekili Beach Park in West Maui, Earthjustice contends, killing the coral reef and triggering outbreaks of invasive algae.

“To discourage polluters like Maui County from using our oceans as their dumping ground, the Clean Water Act imposes stiff penalties,” explained Earthjustice attorney David Henkin.