U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments for injection wells case

The Maui News, November 6, 2019


Lawyers for both sides of the Lahaina injection wells case delivered their oral arguments today before the U.S. Supreme Court, whose ultimate ruling could determine how the federal Clean Water Act is used to regulate pollution to protected waters.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide whether Maui County violated the Clean Water Act by disposing of wastewater through injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility. Four environmental groups sued the county over the injection wells in 2012, saying the effluent was reaching the ocean and damaging the coral reefs. Maui County has argued that it doesn’t need permits under the Clean Water Act because the treated wastewater has not been entering the ocean directly, but rather indirectly through groundwater.

Both sides argued their cases Wednesday morning, and the Supreme Court has between now and June to issue a ruling.

“To me, I’ll be so happy when this is finally decided so the reefs can get the relief they need,” said Hannah Bernard, executive director of Hawaii Wildlife Fund, one of the plaintiffs. “While we’re waiting for a decision, the reefs are still suffering. But I’m glad that we’re moving toward a final stage.”

The West Maui Preservation Association, Sierra Club-Maui Group and the Surfrider Foundation are also plaintiffs in the case.

Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Victorino also traveled to Washington, D.C., to hear the oral arguments in person.

“It was an honor to be present and witness the Supreme Court justices’ consideration of the issues raised by the County of Maui, the plaintiffs and federal regulators,” Victorino said in a statement on Wednesday. “Their questions were insightful, and I felt that they truly understood the complexity of the issues in this case and the potential effects of the expansion of the Clean Water Act on governmental entities and private properties.”

Victorino has been embroiled in a dispute with the Maui County Council over whether to settle the case. The council voted in September to settle and withdraw the case; Victorino decided last month to continue moving forward.

“This case has never been about winning or losing,” Victorino said Wednesday. “It’s about clarity in the law so that we can move forward, confident as to the clear boundaries of the law so we can implement our programs and practices accordingly. I look forward to the Court’s decision.”

Bernard is still holding out hope that the county can withdraw before the Supreme Court issues a ruling.

“At this point I’d still like to see the case withdrawn, because honestly, no one can predict what the final outcome and decision will be,” she said. “So I still don’t want to take the chance of changing the intent and the letter of the Clean Water Act.”

In 2014, the U.S. District Court in Hawaii ruled that the county’s use of injection wells was a violation of the Clean Water Act. The county appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and lost in February 2018. The court denied the county’s request to reconsider the ruling in March 2018. However, in February of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case after circuit courts around the country were split over their rulings on the reach of the Clean Water Act.

For more on the story, see Thursday’s edition of The Maui News.

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