Earthjustice Files Lawsuit to Clean Up Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant Sewage Discharges into the Pacific Ocean

Hawai'i County must comply with the Clean Water Act to prevent discharged wastewater from contaminating Honokōhau Harbor


Elena Bryant, (808) 599-2436,

Hui Mālama Honokōhau sued Hawaiʻi County today for violating the Clean Water Act by continuing to discharge treated sewage from the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant that flows into Honokōhau Harbor through groundwater, harming harbor users and the marine environment. With representation by Earthjustice, the Hui notified the county of the Hui’s intent to sue in May, and the county has failed to take corrective action. 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-owned Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) currently discharges about 1.7 million gallons of treated sewage every day into a natural disposal pit located in a permeable lava field upslope from Honokōhau Harbor. Multiple scientific studies confirm that this wastewater flows into the harbor and nearshore marine waters through groundwater. Hawaiʻi County must obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit in order to comply with the Clean Water Act but the county has refused to do so.

“We have waited for far too long for the county to clean up its act,” said Mike Nakachi, President of Hui Mālama Honokōhau. “No more. We cannot continue to sit idly by while the county dumps nearly two million gallons of contaminated wastewater into our oceans and along our reefs every day. We need to protect our community and the ocean on which we all depend.”

The lawsuit seeks to compel 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 encouraging the county to recycle the wastewater for irrigation, firefighting, and other beneficial uses instead of dumping the wastewater into the harbor.

“The county’s own studies admit that treated sewage from the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant enters the ocean,” said Elena Bryant, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the Hui. “The polluted wastewater harms public health, welfare, and the environment. It is disappointing that the county refuses to do the right thing on its own, requiring the community to take legal action to compel the county to do its job.”

The contaminants entering the ocean from the Kealakehe WWTP harm 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.


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 Kealakehe 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 Hawaiʻi district court concluded trigger the Clean Water Act in the County of Maui case.

The federal Clean Water Act requires an NPDES permit to discharge into the nation’s waters as a tool to reduce water pollution.

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