Editorial: Accept settlement to save Maui reefs

Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Sept. 27, 2019


On a daily basis, the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility disposes of some 3 million gallons of treated sewage by way of injection wells.


Given ample evidence that the discharge flow into groundwater is seeping into the ocean near a West Maui beach park — contributing to coral demise and algae blooms — Maui County should be held to a tougher regulatory standard for wastewater quality and quantity.


That was the apparent reasoning of Maui County Council’s majority when it voted 5-4 to settle its injection well legal dispute rather than bringing the matter before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has been scheduled to hear the case in early Novembe


Mayor Michael Victorino, meanwhile, is continuing to push for a ruling from the high court, contending that current regulatory requirements are sufficient, and complying with the settlement would mean a heavy financial lift for taxpayers.


After last week’s vote, separate sets of attorneys representing the Council and Victorino’s administration disagreed on which side has the final say on how to proceed. While that is being sorted out, there is apparent agreement that government should safeguard the health of coral reef ecosystems from land-based sources of pollution.


To that end, the Victorino administration should yield to the Council’s action, which recommends approval of a settlement that, among other things, would require the county to obtain a federal pollution permit, fund at least $2.5 million in West Maui projects to divert treated sewage from the injection wells and pay a $100,000 penalty to the federal government.


Yes, that will add up to sticker shock for some residents, but it’s the necessary price tag for paying forward reef health — helping to restore and preserve beautiful natural resources that are critical to shoreline protections, local fisheries and tourism, which keeps the island’s economy humming.


What’s more, by avoiding a standoff before the nation’s high court, Maui County avoids setting the stage for the possibility of a ruling that could jeopardize clean water across the United States.


The county lost in both U.S. District Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals after four community groups filed a complaint in 2012 contending that Maui County was violating the Clean Water Act (CWA), which bans the dumping of pollutants directly into surface waters, including oceans.


At the heart of this case is whether the CWA should also apply to indirect dumping — by way of injection wells. The 9th Circuit concluded that Maui County should be prevented from “doing indirectly that which it cannot do directly.” The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case after circuit courts around the country were split over various rulings on the reach of the federal law.


The community groups — Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation and West Maui Preservation — want Maui County to secure a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which is required for CWA compliance as it sets limits on the pollutants that can be discharged into waterways.


That seems reasonable, given that University of Hawaii researchers have conclusively linked injection well-discharge with tainted near-shore waters. And U.S. Geological Survey research has found that discharge from wells — about a half-mile offshore — have undermined the area’s health.


If Victorino keeps the upcoming date with the Supreme Court, and the justices side with the county administration, supporters of efforts to roll back conservation-minded protections likely will cheer the ruling as a win for correcting perceived overreach.


Such an outcome, however, would likely result in further environmental loss for Maui and, possibly, the nation.


Original Post: https://www.staradvertiser.com/2019/09/27/editorial/our-view/editorial-accept-settlement-to-save-maui-reefs/