The Hawai‘i Department of Health is seeking public comment on a proposed Clean Water Act permit for Maui County’s Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility. This is the first time a permit is being proposed for a wastewater treatment facility that discharges to the ocean via groundwater. Ocean advocates are urging the public to submit comments and request a public hearing on the permit to both protect the coral reef at Hā‘enanui, commonly known as Kahekili Beach Park, and model best practices for other facilities throughout the state that use similar wastewater disposal methods.
“This coral reef system has suffered long enough from this wastewater facility,” said Lucienne DeNaie of Sierra Club – Maui Group. “This permit is the first of its kind and provides an opportunity to help this facility dramatically improve its operations and save this coral reef ecosystem.”
This proposed National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is the result of a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of ocean advocates that the Clean Water Act governs indirect pollution discharges into the nation’s waters. Since the 1980s, the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility has been using injection wells to discharge millions of gallons of treated sewage every day into groundwater that reaches the ocean at Hā‘enanui, a favorite local snorkeling and surfing spot. Ocean protection groups including Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, and West Maui Preservation Association have advocated for years for more thoroughly treating and reusing the wastewater to reduce pollution of the nearshore waters. Grassroots advocacy evolved into litigation in 2012, and for nearly 10 years, Maui County fought in court against reducing pollution from the facility under the Clean Water Act. The Act was upheld at every level, including in the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 2021, the Hawai‘i federal district court reaffirmed that the Lahaina injection well discharges must be regulated by an NPDES permit.
“This is a historic moment,” said Earthjustice attorney Mahesh Cleveland. “Maui residents have been working for decades to get to this point where the Department of Health can actually start regulating the pollution that has been destroying the reef, jeopardizing marine wildlife, and harming important public rights.”
Although the proposed permit contains many strong provisions, some aspects require improvement. The Department of Health is requiring extensive water quality testing and is not allowing for a “zone of mixing” in the ocean where pollution limits can be violated. However, the allowable levels of harmful nutrients are set to current levels of pollution, which already far exceed state water quality limits, and which evidence shows is steadily degrading the coral reef.
“The final permit must include stronger pollution limits on nutrients to protect the nearshore ocean waters,” said Angela Howe of Surfrider Foundation. “Studies have shown a conclusive link between the injection wells and the high nutrient levels at Kahekili Beach, and these nutrients are known to kill coral reefs.”
Ocean advocates are encouraging the Maui community to request a public hearing from the Department of Health, in addition to submitting written comments on the permit. On August 5th, Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, and Surfrider Foundation are hosting a public educational meeting at the Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center (3rd Floor of Whalers Village, 2435 Ka‘anapali Parkway, Lahaina) at 5 p.m.
“We need to keep a sharp eye on this permit to make sure it does everything possible to help nurse this ocean ecosystem back to good health,” said Hannah Bernard of Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund. “It took consistent community pressure to get us to this point, and we will need to continue that pressure to ensure that wastewater is safely reused as much as possible and the allowable limits on nitrogen and phosphorus discharges are set low enough for the reefs to recover.”
The deadline for public comment and to request a public hearing on the proposed NPDES permit is August 14th. Review the proposed permit.
Submit written comments, including a request for a public hearing, to: firstname.lastname@example.org or Department of Health Clean Water Branch, P.O. Box 3378, Honolulu, Hawai‘i 96801-3378.