Community Groups to Sue Maui County for Discharging Polluted Wastewater

Groups cite Clean Water Act violations at Lahaina treatment plant


Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436


Hannah Bernard, Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, (808) 280-8124

Today, Maui community groups, represented by Earthjustice, sent Maui County a formal notice of their intent to sue the County for its ongoing violations of the Clean Water Act at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility into the nearshore waters of West Maui. The groups include Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, West Maui Preservation Association, Surfrider Foundation’s Maui Chapter, and Sierra Club-Maui Group.

Algal bloom at Kahekili Beach, Maui, 2006. Courtesy: Meghan Dailer. Enlarge image.

The County’s facility injects millions of gallons of wastewater every day into the ground water. Although the water is treated at the facility, it still contains bacteria, chemicals and other pollutants when it is pumped into the ground. The County has known for many years, and scientific studies have shown, that this wastewater flows through the ground water into Maui’s nearshore waters, where it degrades the water quality, presents health risks, and promotes algae blooms. The Clean Water Act strictly prohibits and penalizes discharging pollutants into the ocean without a permit, known as a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, that restricts the contents of such flows, but the County has never obtained such a permit for the Lahaina facility. The plaintiffs will ask the court to require the County to obtain a water pollution control permit to limit the discharges of pollutants.

“The wastewater flowing from the Lahaina facility is heavily contributing to the decline of coral reefs and the nearshore ecosystem in marine waters on the West Maui coast,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff. “The waters are intended to support aquatic life and provide aesthetic enjoyment and the opportunity for recreation, but because of the pollution from the injection wells, algal blooms smother the reef and pollutants degrade water quality.”

Lance Holter, Chair of the Sierra Club-Maui Group, noted, “Studies conducted by the University of Hawai‘i and the U.S. Geological Survey indicate the presence of municipal wastewater discharge in marine waters near the Lahaina facility. Our goal is to ensure that the County comes into compliance with the Clean Water Act to protect the ocean and those who live, work and play there.”

Algae sample in freshwater seep in waters off of Kahekili Beach, Maui, collected for study conducted in 2007. Courtesy: Meghan Dailer. Enlarge image.

“Areas of concern include the Kahekili Herbivore Recovery Zone, a designated Marine Managed Area within a priority watershed. Our research identifies it as important habitat for critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles,” added Hannah Bernard, president of Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund. “By providing the County with notice of our intent to sue, we are telling Maui County how urgent it is that they stop these illegal discharges.”

The community groups attempted to resolve this issue without litigation, and over the past several years have participated in public hearings and attended numerous meetings with Maui County officials, including both former Mayor Tavares and current Mayor Arakawa and members of their administrations. But the County has failed to obtain an NPDES permit despite the community’s concerns, and despite decades of polluting marine waters in violation of the Clean Water Act. The law requires that formal notice of intent to sue be provided at least sixty days before a lawsuit is filed. The community groups took this step today, and intend to follow up with a lawsuit when the notice period elapses.

“Maui County has been able to evade applying for a permit at the Lahaina facility for the past 30 years, and it’s the public that has had to deal with the consequences. The Clean Water Act requires that the County get a permit to regulate their pollution discharges for the protection of Maui coastal water quality, aquatic ecosystems, and human health, and sound public policy requires that the County start reclaiming the water for land-based use instead of dumping it into the ocean,” said Stuart Coleman, Surfrider Foundation’s Hawaii Coordinator.

Read the notice of intent.

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