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Suing to Stop Illegal Sewage Discharges in Maui

Kahekili Beach on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Kahekili Beach on west Maui. Millions of gallons of wastewater injected into wells at the facility each day surface offshore of this popular beach park, killing the coral reef and triggering outbreaks of invasive algae.

Joe West / Shutterstock

What’s at Stake

Millions of gallons of wastewater injected into wells at the facility each day surface offshore of popular Kahekili Beach Park in West Maui, killing the coral reef and triggering outbreaks of invasive algae.

Overview

Four Hawaiʻi community groups, represented by Earthjustice, have filed suit under the federal Clean Water Act to stop Maui County from discharging wastewater into the ocean from its Lahaina treatment plant without a permit. Millions of gallons of wastewater injected into wells at the facility each day surface offshore of popular Kahekili Beach Park in West Maui, killing the coral reef and triggering outbreaks of invasive algae.

Maui County has been discharging partially-treated sewage into injection wells at the Lahaina wastewater treatment plant for 30 years, knowing full well that the wastewater would eventually reach the ocean, but has refused to apply for, much less comply with, the required federal wastewater discharge permit. Currently, three to five million gallons of wastewater are discharged into the wells each day.

The complaint filed by the groups asks the court to direct Maui County to secure a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which would set limits on the pollutants that can be discharged from the wells.

In addition to pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorous, the wastewater contains bacteria and other pathogens, in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. In September 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency required the County to disinfect all of the wastewater pumped into the injection wells at the Lahaina facility by the end of 2013. The County’s failure to adequately disinfect the water over the past several years has been linked to staph infections among swimmers and other users of Kahekili Beach Park.

Researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi analyzed the specific type of nitrogen found in the algae growing in the waters offshore of Kahekili Beach and were able to positively identify it as the same type of nitrogen being pumped into the injection wells.

Earthjustice is representing Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund, West Maui Preservation Association, Surfrider Foundation’s Maui Chapter, and Sierra Club-Maui Group.

Case ID

1999

Attorneys

Case Updates

March 30, 2018 | Legal Document

Lahaina Injection Wells Order and amended Opinion

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii Susan O. Mollway, Senior District Judge, Presiding
Argued and Submitted October 12, 2017 University of Hawaii Manoa Filed February 1, 2018 Amended March 30, 2018

March 30, 2018 | Press Release: Victory

Federal Appeals Court Reaffirms Maui Clean Water Act Decision

9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejects Maui County’s petition for the full court to reconsider whether Maui County violated the Clean Water Act by injecting millions of gallons of treated sewage each day into wells that discharge into the Pacific Ocean

February 1, 2018 | Legal Document

Prouty Vulnerability of Coral Reefs to Bioerosion from Land-based Sources of Pollution

Ocean acidification (OA), the gradual decline in ocean pH and [CO32- ] caused by rising levels of atmospheric CO2, poses a significant threat to coral reef ecosystems, depressing rates of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) production, and enhancing rates of bioerosion and dissolution. As ocean pH and [CO32- ] decline globally, there is increasing emphasis on managing local stressors that can exacerbate the vulnerability of coral reefs to the effects of OA. We show that 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 under
equivalent low pH conditions but living in oligotrophic waters. Heavier coral 15N values pinpoint not only site-specific eutrophication, but also a sewage nitrogen source enriched in 15N. Our results show that eutrophication of reef seawater by land-based sources of pollution can
Research Article Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans DOI 10.1002/2017JC013264 This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process which may lead to
differences between this version and the Version of Record. Please cite this article as doi: 10.1002/2017JC013264
 

February 1, 2018 | Legal Document

Court Opinion Lahaina Injection Wells

The panel affirmed the district court’s summary judgment rulings that the County of Maui violated the Clean Water Act when it discharged pollutants from its wells into the Pacific Ocean, and further finding that the County had fair notice of its violations.