Honolulu Star Advertiser, January 28, 2015
By Timothy Hurley
For the second time in less than a year, a federal judge has ruled that the use of injection wells at Maui County’s sewage treatment plant in Lahaina violates the federal Clean Water Act, a finding that could lead to a large penalty.
In May, U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway ruled that wastewater discharges into two of four injection wells in Lahaina violated the Clean Water Act. On Friday, Mollway ruled that the discharges into the remaining two injection wells are also illegal without a permit.
“This ruling makes clear that the county cannot use any of the Lahaina wells without violating the law,” said David Henkin, an Earthjustice attorney representing four groups that filed suit against the county. “It also doubles the county’s exposure to civil penalties.”
At issue are the millions of gallons of wastewater injected each day into the wells. A study found that the wastewater finds its way into the waters near Kahekili Beach Park in West Maui, killing corals and triggering outbreaks of algae.
After the ruling in May, the county started shifting discharges of partially treated wastewater to the wells not covered by the prior ruling.
Henkin said under the court’s finding, fines of more than $100,000 could be imposed for each day the wells were used going back to 2007.
“This environmental disaster has been going on for over 30 years,” he said. “This latest decision is a wake-up call for the county to stop using the ocean as a sewer and finally fix this problem. The county can and should reuse the millions of gallons of wastewater from the Lahaina facility to meet the needs of golf courses, resorts and other developments, not dump them onto fragile reefs.”
Maui County Managing Director Keith Regan said the county has already applied for the required state Health Department permit.
“Also, we would rather have more hotels and resorts using our treated water rather than putting it into injection wells, but for that to happen, we need to expand our delivery systems. We are already doing just that by building more distribution lines and water tanks, but it won’t happen overnight. Overall I don’t think we are too far from having this issue resolved with the plaintiffs,” he said.
According to the Maui County website, “Studies do not prove that nutrients (including nitrogen) from these wells are the sole or most significant source of blooms or reef damage. While independent studies detected injection well discharge in some areas of algae blooms, other sources from rainfall runoff, reef siltation, agricultural fertilizer, over-fishing and human interaction must also be analyzed as contributing causes.”
Mollway is expected to consider imposing fines following an August trial.