Injection well lawsuit in the works

Maui News | June 30, 2011

By ILIMA LOOMIS – Staff Writer (

Four groups say county acting in violation of Clean Water Act

Four community groups have filed a notice of intent to sue Maui County over alleged Clean Water Act violations at its West Maui injection wells.

The notice claims that treated effluent injected into the ground at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility has been seeping into the ocean off Kaanapali, causing pollution that poses a health risk for ocean users and stimulates the growth of reef-choking algae.

The document states that the county must obtain a special discharge permit in order to come into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

County officials responded by saying that the treatment plant has been operating legally under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Health permits, and that the county had been cooperating with state and federal regulators to be sure it was complying with all of the permits’ conditions.

Part of that process has been conducting tracer and seep studies to determine whether the effluent was reaching offshore waters and whether the county needed to obtain a discharge permit, they noted in a news release issued Wednesday.

“Until those studies are complete, any talk of alleged violations is premature at best,” the county said in its statement.

The nonprofit Earthjustice filed the notice Tuesday on behalf of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, West Maui Preservation Association, Surfrider Foundation’s Maui Chapter and Sierra Club-Maui Group.

The Clean Water Act requires potential plaintiffs to file a notice of alleged violations at least 60 days before they file a lawsuit.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff wrote that pollution from injection wells had degraded the water quality off Kaanapali.

“The wastewater flowing from the Lahaina facility is heavily contributing to the decline of coral reefs and the nearshore ecosystem in marine waters on the West Maui coast,” he says in the organization’s notice of intent.

The statement by Earthjustice says that the four community groups had tried to resolve the issue for several years without resorting to litigation by participating in public hearings and meeting with county officials, including both former Mayor Charmaine Tavares and current Mayor Alan Arakawa.

But the county had not taken actions to fulfill its promises to phase out injection wells, the organization alleges.

“Our goal is to ensure that the county comes into compliance with the Clean Water Act to protect the ocean and those who live, work and play there,” stated Sierra Club Maui Chairman Lance Holter.

In the notice, Earthjustice says the county has continuously discharged treated wastewater into the ocean off Kaanapali since it began using injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility in 1982.

While the effluent receives some chlorination, the notice claims that the treatment serves only to prevent “undesirable clumping” of bacteria and other organisms, not to disinfect the water. And even though it undergoes some nitrogen removal, the effluent still contains high levels of nutrients and pathogens, according to the filing.

Earthjustice notes that the Lahaina facility’s underground injection-control permit expired in 2005, and that the treatment plant has continued to operate under its old permit while the EPA and county negotiate terms of its renewal.

The notice also cites a University of Hawaii study that found elevated nitrogen levels in waters near the injection wells and a U.S. Geological Survey study that “detected wastewater plumes in the West Maui coastal waters.”

“These scientific investigations leave no doubt: wastewater and its constituent pollutants are flowing from the point sources of the LWRF and discharging into West Maui’s coastal waters,” Earthjustice claims in the filing.

The county has known about the pollution for decades but has “refused” to apply for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permit, which would regulate the discharge, the notice says.

In their response, county officials said Earthjustice’s statements were “misleading.”

They noted that the investigator who authored the USGS study had stated publicly that his report had not determined the cause of algae blooms off West Maui or concluded that they were linked to injection well effluent.

The EPA had not yet determined whether a discharge permit was required, county officials added.

At the EPA’s request, the county has applied for a water-quality certification – a “necessary first step” toward determining whether the permit is needed, they said. The application for certification has not yet been granted by the EPA.

The county is committed to protecting the environment, county officials maintained.

“The core mission of the county’s wastewater treatment division and its facilities is environmental protection,” they said. “We are committed to working with the State of Hawaii Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate cost-effective and scientifically reliable methods by which the federal government, the State of Hawaii and the County of Maui can meet our common goals.”

* Ilima Loomis can be reached at

* Correction

* Injection suit. The state Department of Health has not yet approved Maui County’s application for a water-quality certification. An article published on page A1 on Thursday and continued on page A4 incorrectly said the application was pending before another agency. The Maui News apologizes for the error.

* The Maui News wants to promptly correct errors in fact or make clarifications on information appearing in the newspaper. To report an error or clarification, please call 242-6343 or send email to