Keep pollution out of Hawai‘i’s coral reefs


Supporters spoke up in this action

Delivery to Hawai‘i State Department of Health

Action ended on September 13, 2023

What Happens Next

Thank you to all who took action! We’re grateful for your support.

What Was At Stake

We have long fought alongside the communities of Maui. Right now, we have an opportunity to support Maui residents in their decades-long effort to uphold the Clean Water Act. Since the 1980s, Maui County’s Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility has discharged millions of gallons of treated sewage into groundwater every day that reaches the coral reef off Kahekili Beach, an area traditionally called Hāʻenanui. In 2012, Earthjustice and our partners sued the county under the Clean Water Act to hold Maui County accountable for its pollution. Now we can finally do something about it.

The county claimed it didn’t need a permit to pollute the water because it was discharging pollution underground into groundwater — rather than directly to the Hā‘enanui reef — even though the county knew the injected wastewater would end up in the ocean.

Over the next eight years, the case worked its way up to the Supreme Court, where it became a broader question about how the Clean Water Act should be interpreted. We won — the Supreme Court affirmed that the county couldn’t get away with polluting the ocean just because it wasn’t doing so directly.

Following this win, the case worked its way back to the Hawai‘i Federal District Court, which applied the Supreme Court ruling to the question that started it all — ultimately concluding that Maui County must secure a Clean Water Act permit for its Lahaina discharges. The Hawai‘i State Department of Health has now drafted a permit in response to the court rulings.

This particular permit will be the first of its kind in Hawai‘i to regulate ocean pollution through underground injection wells, which are used throughout the islands for wastewater disposal. We need your help to ensure this precedent-setting permit is the best it can be.

This is not a problem we can leave unaddressed. The treated wastewater has high levels of nutrients and freshwater that destroy coral reef ecosystems by eroding corals from the inside out and blanketing them with harmful algae. The waters of Hā‘enanui moreover provide important feeding areas for the critically endangered honu ‘ea (hawksbill sea turtle). Honu ‘ea depend on healthy coral reefs for food. The shoreline also provides resting areas for ‘īlio holo i ka uaua (Hawaiian monk seal), one of the most endangered seal species in the world.

Since this permit is the first of its kind in Hawai‘i, we need to make sure that the regulators know that the public backs the strongest possible clean water protections. Tell the Hawaiʻi State Department of Health to clean up our water.

A turtle surfaces offshore of Kahekili Beach Park, Maui, Hawaii.
A turtle surfaces offshore of Kahekili Beach Park, Maui, Hawaii. (Courtesy of Don McLeish)

Your Actions Matter

Your messages make a difference, even if we have leaders who don't want to listen. Here's why.

You level the playing field.

Elected officials pay attention when they see that we are paying attention. Read more.

They may be hearing from industry lobbyists left and right, but hearing the stories of their constituents — that’s your power.

Our legislators serve at the pleasure of the people who gave them their job — you.

Make sure your elected officials know whose community and whose values they represent. When you contact your elected official, you’re putting a face and a name on an issue.

Whether or not you voted for them, they work for you, for the duration of their term.

Make sure your elected officials know whose community and whose values they represent. (Find your local, state, and federal elected officials.)

Your action is with us in court.

If a federal agency finalizes a harmful action, the record of public comments provides a basis for bringing them into court. Read more.

Throughout each of the public comment periods we alert you to, Earthjustice’s attorneys are researching and writing in-depth, technical comments to submit — detailing how the regulation could and should be stronger to protect the environment, our communities, and our planet.

We need you to join us — your specific experiences, knowledge, and voice are crucial to add to the Administrative Record through the comment periods.

Lawsuits we file that challenge weak or harmful federal regulations rely on what was submitted during the comment period. The court can only look at documents that are in the Administrative Record — including the public comments — to decide if the agency did something improper.

Your actions aid our litigation. Taking action and submitting comments during a comment period is substantively important.

It’s the law.

Federal agencies must pause what they’re doing and ask for — and consider — your comment. Read more.

Many of us may have never heard of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), but laws like these require our government to ask the public to weigh in before agencies adopt or change regulations.

Regulations essentially describe how federal agencies will carry out laws — including decisions that could undermine science, or weaken safeguards on public health.

Public comments are collected at various points throughout the federal government’s rulemaking process, including when a regulation is proposed and finalized. (Learn about the rulemaking process.) These comments become part of the official, legal public record — the “Administrative Record.”

When the public responds with a huge outpouring of support for environmental protections, these individual messages collectively undercut politicians' attempts to claim otherwise.

What this means is each of us can take a role in shaping the rules our government creates — and ensuring those rules are fair and effective.