MauiNow | April 16, 2012 · 3:12 PM HST
* Updated April 17, 2012 · 4:39 PM
By Wendy Osher
Four community groups filed a federal lawsuit today against the Maui County for alleged violations of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility.
The environmental law firm, Earthjustice, filed the complaint on behalf of Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club – Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation, and West Maui Preservation Association.
The groups allege that wastewater or sewage from the treatment facility is injected into the wells, and then flows via groundwater through the subsurface into near-shore Maui ocean waters.
The complaint further alleges that un-permitted discharges began prior to 2006, and have continued on a daily basis.
According to court documents, the groups claim the actions have had detrimental effects on, and pose an ongoing threat to, the water quality and health of near-shore coastal waters and ecosystems, particularly at Kahekili Beach in West Maui.
“We notified Maui County last June that its Lahaina facility was damaging the reef and operating illegally, in hope that the county would voluntarily seek the required permit for wastewater discharges from the injection wells,” said Earthjustice attorney Caroline Ishida in a statement today.
“Unfortunately, it apparently takes an enforcement action to get the county to do anything, which is why we’re now seeking relief from the court.”
County Communications Director Rod Antone responded to the news saying, “the county cannot comment about active litigation.”
The group initially provided written notice of their intent to sue on June 28, 2011. At the time, county officials responded saying, “any talk of alleged violations is premature at best.”
According to court documents, the groups claim the county “injects millions of gallons of wastewater and other pollutants into the wells on a daily basis. “The violations are likely to continue unless and until (the) defendant obtains and complies with the terms of a valid NPDES permit,” the complaint states.
“While disinfection is a step in the right direction, it won’t remove nitrogen and phosphorous from the wastewater, so it won’t get rid of the harmful algae growth at Kahekili,” said Hannah Bernard of Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund in a media release. “Algae smother the coral and upset the ecosystem because fish and other marine animals depend on the reef for food and need the crevices within the reef for shelter,” she said.
According to Earthjustice, researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi analyzed the specific type of nitrogen found in the algae growing in the waters offshore of Kahekili Beach and were able to positively identify it as the same type of nitrogen being pumped into the injection wells.
“The Lahaina wastewater facility must cease using the public nearshore waters to dispose of its waste,” said Lance D. Collins of West Maui Preservation Association, in a statement today. “In the face of the scientific evidence, continuing to pretend the injected effluent magically disappears is no longer acceptable,” he said.