Groups to sue county for violating Clean Water Act at Honokowai plant

Lahaina News | July 21, 2011

HONOKOWAI — Maui community groups represented by Earthjustice have sent Maui County a formal notice of their intent to sue the county for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility (LWRF) into the nearshore waters of West Maui.

The groups include the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, West Maui Preservation Association, Surfrider Foundation-Maui Chapter and Sierra Club-Maui Group.

The county responded by explaining that it operates LWRF under permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state Department of Health (DOH), and the plant is operating in compliance with all permit conditions and applicable laws.

According to the groups, the county facility in Honokowai injects millions of gallons of wastewater every day into the groundwater via injection wells.

Although the water is treated at the facility, it still contains bacteria, chemicals and other pollutants when it is pumped into the ground.

“The county has known for many years, and scientific studies have shown, that this wastewater flows through the groundwater into Maui’s nearshore waters, where it degrades the water quality, presents health risks and promotes algae blooms,” the groups contend.

The Clean Water Act strictly prohibits and penalizes discharging pollutants into the ocean without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that restricts the contents of such flows. The county has never obtained a NPDES permit for the West Maui facility.

The plaintiffs will ask the court to require the county to obtain a water pollution control permit to limit the discharges of pollutants.

“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,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff.

“The waters are intended to support aquatic life and provide aesthetic enjoyment and the opportunity for recreation, but because of the pollution from the injection wells, algal blooms smother the reef, and pollutants degrade water quality.”

Lance Holter, chair of the Sierra Club-Maui Group, noted, “Studies conducted by the University of Hawaii and the U.S. Geological Survey indicate the presence of municipal wastewater discharge in marine waters near the Lahaina facility. 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.”

“Areas of concern include the Kahekili Herbivore Recovery Zone, a designated Marine Managed Area within a priority watershed. Our research identifies it as important habitat for critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles,” said Hannah Bernard, president of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

“By providing the county with notice of our intent to sue, we are telling Maui County how urgent it is that they stop these illegal discharges.”

The County of Maui reported that it has worked cooperatively with state and federal officials concerning the reclamation facility.

Part of the collaborative process between the county, EPA and Health Department includes scientific tracer and seep studies to determine whether a NPDES permit is needed for the West Side facility.

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

EPA has not yet determined whether a NPDES permit is required.

A March 10, 2010 letter from David Albright, EPA Region 9’s Groundwater Officer manager, advised that “Maui’s operation of the Lahaina WWRF may result in a discharge into navigable waters.”

At EPA’s request, the county applied for a Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification on May 7, 2010. This certification is a necessary first step in determining whether a NPDES permit is required.

The county’s application has not yet been granted, pending further information from ongoing scientific studies.

According to the county, the core mission of its Wastewater Treatment Division and facilities is environmental protection, and officials are working with the EPA and DOH to investigate cost-effective and scientifically reliable methods by which the federal government, State of Hawaii and County of Maui can meet common goals.

During the past several years, members of the community groups have participated in public hearings and attended numerous meetings with county officials, including former Mayor Charmaine Tavares, current Mayor Alan Arakawa and members of their administrations.

The county has failed to obtain a NPDES permit despite the community’s concerns, “and despite decades of polluting marine waters in violation of the Clean Water Act,” the groups noted in their press release.

The law requires that formal notice of intent to sue be provided at least 60 days before a lawsuit is filed. The community groups took this step on June 29 and intend to file the lawsuit.

“Maui County has been able to evade applying for a permit at the Lahaina facility for the past 30 years, and it’s the public that has had to deal with the consequences,” said Stuart Coleman, Surfrider Foundation’s Hawaii coordinator.

“The Clean Water Act requires that the county get a permit to regulate their pollution discharges for the protection of Maui coastal water quality, aquatic ecosystems and human health, and sound public policy requires that the county start reclaiming the water for land-based use instead of dumping it into the ocean.”

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