Lahaina Wastewater Injection Wells & the Clean Water Act
3-5 million gallons.
That is how much partially treated sewage Maui County has pumped into Maui’s groundwater through injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility EVERY DAY for over 30 YEARS.
The polluted groundwater then flows into the ocean near Kahekili Beach. The water quality and coral reef health has been degraded greatly from being exposed to this much pollution for so long—the coral cover of the reefs at Kahekili, one of the most popular snorkeling spots on Maui, has decreased by over 40%.
The Sierra Club Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation, Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund and West Maui Preservation Association, have been fighting for decades to stop this pollution. After years of attempting to resolve the issue outside of the court, the community groups filed a lawsuit in 2012 under the Clean Water Act to stop Maui County from discharging wastewater without a permit.
Both the Hawai‘i-based district court and the Ninth Circuit appeals court have ruled in favor of clean water, ruling that the County cannot freely pollute the ocean via injection wells and are required to get a permit under the Clean Water Act. Yet Maui County has spent $4.3 million in taxpayer money to fight the law, money that could have been used for water reuse to keep the contaminated water off of West Maui’s reefs. This case has now reached the United States Supreme Court and is threatening to strip vital protections from the Clean Water Act.
We are asking Maui County to withdraw their case and upgrade the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility instead of continuing to fight the courts, ultimately jeopardizing the health of not only West Maui’s waters, but the entire nation’s waters.
〉The GET Committee is hearing resolution 19-178 re: settling the case (before it heads to the US Supreme Court) on Tuesday, September 3. Submit written testimony below and TURN OUT on 9/3 9am!〈
A win for Maui County would gut the Clean Water Act. A ruling in their favor would mean that polluters are free to contaminate the nation’s water bodies as long as they release their waste into a pipe in the ground—no matter where that pollution goes.
15,000 + people are calling on the County to settle their case!
On August 28, Sierra Club Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation – Maui Chapter, Hawaii Wildlife Fund, and West Maui Preservation Association delivered a petition with over 15,000 signatures to Maui County Council Chair Kelly King. The petition urges the Maui County government to settle the legal case involving its Lahaina wastewater treatment plant and withdraw its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Each water drop on the banner presented to Chair King is made up of individual coral reef photos—one photo for each petition signature. Read more here.
That is how much Maui County has paid to mainland lawyers to fight the law since 2012.
Through this legal battle, the County has insisted that any ocean pollution through underground dumping is exempt from the law. They have wasted millions of dollars that could have been spent towards upgrading the Lahaina facility and squandered numerous opportunities to settle the case.
[Update]: In May 2019, the Maui County Council Committee on Governance, Ethics, and Transparency (GET) considered whether the County should take the most recently offered settlement agreement. After deliberation the vote was deadlocked 4-4 and the measure stalled in committee. The GET committee could consider the settlement again. Mahalo to councilmembers Kelly King, Keani Rawlins-Ferdandez, Shane Sinenci and Tamara Paltin for voting to settle the case.
A win for Maui County could mean the gutting of the Clean Water Act.
The Clean Water Act is the bedrock legal protection of clean water for the entire nation since its enactment in 1972 during the Nixon Administration. The purpose of the law was to “protect and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”
The Obama Administration supported the Clean Water Act regulation of this wastewater treatment plant but the Trump Administration has reversed this position—and for the first time in any Democratic or Republican administration since the Clean Water Act was established is arguing that the law does not apply to any pollution sent into the ground.
Maui County is not alone in hoping for a win in the Supreme Court. The County’s allies, in addition to the Trump Administration, include a who’s who of polluting industries—the oil and gas industry, the pipeline industry, the mining industry, the manufacturing industry—including 13 republican senators and right-wing property organizations. They are all banning together in hopes of a free pass to pollute the environment and local communities for convenience and quick profits.
So who is backing protection of the Clean Water Act, and who is backing the County in asking to be able to dump into the ocean without a permit?
Want to learn more about the issue at hand? Check out this “Sea Talk” by David Henkin, one of the lead attorneys from Earthjustice on this case and get a comprehensive explanation.
- Sierra Club Maui Group Informational Handout
- Timeline of the Lahaina Wastewater Case, 2011-today
- Earthjustice Blog Series: Suing to stop illegal sewage discharges in Maui
- CrossRoads Community TV Show: Lahaina Wastewater
- Maui Democratic Party Resolution on Lahaina Injection wells
- Earthjustice: Video of Green Tracer Dye test showing path of sewage onto coral reef at Kahekili
- Observations of nearshore groundwater discharge: Kahekili Beach Park submarine springs, Maui, Hawaii (2017)
- Wastewater effluent plume in nearshore and offshore surface waters and three-dimensionally model the plume across a coral reef on Maui
- Vulnerability of coral reefs to bioerosion from land-based sources of pollution (” sustained, nutrient rich, lower pH submarine groundwater
discharging onto nearshore coral reefs off west Maui lowers the pH of seawater and exposes corals to nitrate concentrations 50 times higher than ambient. Rates of coral calcification are substantially decreased, and rates of bioerosion are orders of magnitude higher than those observed in coral cores collected in the Pacific”)
- USGS 2018 study showing effects on reef off of Kahekili Beach Park from Lahaina injection wells
- Radio interview with Isaac Moriwake and Hannah Bernard August 28, 2019
- July 14, 2019 – Island voices: Maui County should clean up, not fight wastewater issues (page 1, page 2), Honolulu Star-Advertiser
- July 12, 2019 – Enviros Urge Justices To Uphold 9th Circ. Groundwater Ruling, Law360
- February 27, 2019 – Our view: Stop pollution of Maui coral reefs, Honolulu Star-Advertiser