Late Friday night, a majority of the Maui County Council voted in favor of a settlement to withdraw the county’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the federal Clean Water Act’s protections against ocean pollution from the county’s Lahaina wastewater plant. The council’s Governance, Ethics, and Transparency Committee, led by Chair Mike Molina, voted 5-3 in favor of the settlement. Those voting in favor included Chair Molina, Vice-Chair Rawlins-Fernandez, and Members King, Paltin, and Sinenci. The matter will now go before the council within the next several weeks for a final vote.
“We commend the council majority for taking an important step toward the future and opening the way for the county to work collaboratively at home to resolve the problems of the Lahaina plant,” said Hannah Bernard, Executive Director of Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund and longtime Maui community leader. “We especially recognize and thank Chair Molina, who showed integrity and leadership in how he conducted the proceedings, worked to obtain more information and thoroughly considered all of it, and embraced his responsibility to take a principled stand for the people of Maui.”
In his closing remarks before the vote, Chair Molina stated that he held the extensive hearings to allow a “fully informed decision.” Noting how long the problems with the Lahaina plant had continued unresolved, he concluded: “I don’t want to wait another 12 years. Enough is enough.”
The committee initially met on May 20 and 23, taking an initial vote that ended in a 4-4 deadlock. But Chair Molina indicated at the time that he intended to revisit the matter after an opportunity to seek more information, including input from the state Department of Health (DOH) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
On Friday, the committee heard from DOH Director Bruce Anderson, who called into the meeting. Anderson dispelled the fearmongering by supporters of the county’s appeal about supposed potential impacts on individual homeowners with cesspools. He maintained that DOH had no intention or need to add to the controls on cesspools that have existed for decades. He also responded to a recent email from a Trump EPA official speculating that additional regulation of cesspools “could” be required, calling such speculation “irrelevant” and “inappropriate.”
Anderson also made clear that the state DOH is “more than willing” to work with the county to come up with a program to address the ocean pollution from the Lahaina plant, by strengthening the plant’s permit conditions to protect ocean water quality. He stressed the need to maximize reuse of the treated wastewater and return to the “original intent” that injection wells be used only as an emergency backup, and not the primary dumping method.
“We’re glad that Director Anderson was able to put to rest the irresponsible and irrational fearmongering by the supporters of the county’s appeal,” said Isaac Moriwake, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Mid-Pacific Office. “The message came through loud and clear that the state can help the county find the way forward—but that doing nothing and letting the Lahaina plant continue to pollute the ocean should no longer be an option.”
The settlement approved on Friday is a proposal from the Maui community group plaintiffs, with some amendments. Before voting to approve the settlement, the committee voted against retreating behind closed doors into executive session to hear a supposed alternative “offer” from Mayor Victorino. Despite a written request from Chair Molina that the mayor provide his offer in advance and in a public forum, the mayor refused. When the council declined to go into executive session, the mayor’s representative announced that the mayor’s offer would not be presented.
In public statements, the mayor has made clear he has no intention of settling this case. The council, however, has the ultimate legal authority to settle cases such as this one, which have financial impacts on the county. The mayor and corporation counsel have nonetheless consistently worked in opposition to the council exercising its authority in this case, and such obstructionism will undoubtedly continue as the council heads to a final vote.
“This administration and its corp counsel have stopped at nothing to try to get their way in this case, which is to have Maui lead the charge to gut the Clean Water Act,” said Bernard. “The people of Maui — and the entire nation — are depending on the council majority to show real leadership and drop this misguided appeal.”
Liz Trotter, Earthjustice, (305) 332-5395