Citizens Threaten Lawsuit to Clean Up Pollution at Honokōhau Harbor

County of Hawai‘i must obtain a Clean Water Act permit for sewage discharges into the Pacific Ocean from Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant


Elena Bryant,, (808) 599-2436

Mike Nakachi,, (808) 640-3871

Today, Hui Mālama Honokōhau, represented by Earthjustice, put the County of Hawai‘i on notice that the Hui intends to sue under the federal Clean Water Act unless the County cleans up its act and stops discharging treated sewage from the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) into Honokōhau Harbor without the required permit. The Hui is a group of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, fishers, paddlers, recreational ocean users, and concerned community members who use Honokōhau Harbor and nearby ocean waters.

The County of Hawai‘i currently discharges about 1.7 million gallons of treated sewage every day from the Kealakehe WWTP into a natural disposal pit located in a permeable lava field upslope from Honokōhau Harbor. Multiple, peer-reviewed scientific studies confirm that this treated sewage enters the groundwater beneath the disposal pit and flows with the groundwater into the harbor and adjacent marine waters. To comply with the Clean Water Act, the County needs a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which will ensure that the discharges meet water quality standards.

Currently, the treated sewage entering the ocean harms both the marine environment and the families who rely on it for subsistence and recreation. The nutrient-laden groundwater entering Honokōhau Bay contributes to algal blooms that inflict chronic stress on the bay’s coral reef ecosystems, making them more vulnerable to storms and other acute disturbances. The discharged effluent, which is not disinfected, is also a likely cause of the numerous staph infections suffered by users of the harbor and surrounding waters.

“Our community enters the waters at Honokōhau Harbor every day,” said Mike Nakachi, president of Hui Mālama Honokōhau. “This is our backyard. We want the County to stop contaminating our water and nearshore reef ecosystems so it’s safe for our families to fish, gather, and play along our shoreline.”

The Hui is urging Hawai‘i County to modify operations at the Kealakehe WWTP to comply with the Clean Water Act, which will require upgrades to the facility’s wastewater treatment processes to reduce the amount of contaminants entering the harbor. The Hui is further encouraging the County to recycle the wastewater for irrigation needs instead of discharging the wastewater into the harbor.

“The law requires the County to reduce the pollution it releases into the bay to ensure this ecosystem can continue to sustain life — for both wildlife and people,” said Elena Bryant, associate attorney at Earthjustice representing the Hui.  “As it is, our coral reefs are dying from a multitude of harms, many of which we can control. The County’s polluted wastewater is one of those harms that can and should be immediately controlled.”

The County has proposed to construct a pump station to convey sewage from residential and commercial buildings in the North Kona area to the facility for treatment and disposal. This will increase inflows to the WWTP in the near term by over 1.5 million gallons per day, to a total over 3 million gallons per day. The WWTP expects to receive over 4.0 million gallons per day of wastewater by 2050, which, without necessary upgrades, would dramatically increase nutrient inputs to the harbor and Honokōhau Bay.

In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Earthjustice and its clients in County of Maui v. Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund, affirming that point source discharges, like those from the WWTP, to navigable waters (the Pacific Ocean in this instance) through groundwater are regulated under the Clean Water Act. In this case, the distance traveled, about 0.7 miles from the disposal pit to the harbor, and transit time, which occurs over a few months at most, are both similar to the values the Hawai‘i district court concluded trigger the Clean Water Act in the County of Maui case.

Under the Clean Water Act, the County has 60 days to come into compliance with the law, beginning with the County’s application for an NPDES permit and minimization of pollution from the Kealakehe WWTP. The federal Clean Water Act requires an NPDES permit to discharge into the nation’s waters as a tool to reduce water pollution.

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.