Maui wells violate federal law, court rules

Honolulu Star Advertiser | June 3, 2014

By Timothy Hurley

A federal judge in Honolulu has ruled that Maui County’s use of injection wells at its Lahaina sewage treatment plant violates the federal Clean Water Act, setting up the county for potential fines reaching into the millions of dollars.

Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway on Friday concluded that most of the 3 million to 5 million gallons of treated waste water the county injects into the wells each day flows underground and into the near-shore waters off Kahe­kili Beach Park in West Maui where it affects “the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the ocean water.”

Mollway set a hearing date for March 17 to determine civil penalties.

Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said Monday the county respects the court’s decision but is still reviewing the ruling and evaluating its options.

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said the county faces maximum fines of more than $75 million, with the amount going up thousands of dollars each day the county continues to pollute the ocean.

“The problem is serious,” Henkin declared. “It’s time for the county to step up and act responsibly.”

Earthjustice filed suit against the county in April 2012 on behalf of the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, the Surfrider Foundation, the West Maui Preservation Association and the Sierra Club Maui Group. The lawsuit followed years of unsuccessful attempts to resolve the issue out of court, including 18 months of face-to-face settlement talks.

In Friday’s ruling, Mollway agreed with the environmental groups that wastewater-laced groundwater entering the ocean contains “exceptionally elevated” levels of nitrogen and phosphorous and that the addition of nutrients from the county’s facility “can accelerate the growth of fleshy seaweed and algae, which can compete with, outgrow and kill coral.”

The judge also noted that “the coral reefs near the submarine seeps have been subject to algal blooms that have led to a decline in coral cover from 55 percent to 33 percent between 1994 and 2006.” The court further found that the county’s discharges into the ocean are “substantially more acidic than the rest of the ocean’s nearshore water,” lower in salinity and dissolved oxygen, and “substantially elevated” in temperature.

A University of Hawaii study released last year found that a tracer dye reached the ocean 84 days after it was placed into two of the Lahaina injection wells.

“With elevated nutrients, acidity and temperature, combined with its low salinity and oxygen, the county’s wastewater is, sadly, a perfect recipe for destroying Kahekili’s coral reefs,” said Hannah Bernard of the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund.

Bernard recalled taking her children to Kahekili Beach Park when they were young, and she’s witnessed the deterioration of the coral reef there over the years.

“The dramatic decline of this once-pristine marine environment is just heartbreaking,” she said. “The county needs to take immediate steps to save what’s left.”

Lucienne de Naie, conservation chairwoman of the Sierra Club Maui Group, said in a statement that community members have tried for years to persuade public officials to address the threat to the marine environment and public health seriously.

“It’s frustrating that they refused to listen to us, forcing us to go to court,” she said, “but we are happy the judge understands the gravity of the situation.”

Henkin noted that the Lahaina wastewater is treated to the highest-rated degree, which makes it suitable for crops and irrigation for golf courses and landscaping. He said that instead of dumping the millions of gallons of treated sewage into the injection wells, the county should be reusing it to meet the needs of golf courses, resorts and other developments.

This ruling puts the county on notice that it will have to address the use of injection wells at its other sewage treatment plants as well, Henkin said.

“Putting wastewater into the ocean and pretending it will go away is not going to work anymore,” he said.

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