Hawaiʻi County Agrees to Take Responsibility for its Wastewater Discharges into Honokohau Harbor


County will apply for Clean Water Act Permit to manage discharges from Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant


Elena Bryant, (808) 599-2436, ebryant@earthjustice.org

Hui Mālama Honokōhau and Hawaiʻi County reached a partial settlement agreement on Friday, July 5, 2024, in a lawsuit Earthjustice filed on behalf of the community group last fall. The Hui sued the county for violating the Clean Water Act by discharging treated sewage from the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) into Honokōhau Harbor through groundwater, harming harbor users and the marine environment.

In the settlement agreement, the County now acknowledges that it requires a Clean Water Act permit for its wastewater discharges and has committed to apply for the required National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit within six months. Securing an NPDES permit is a necessary step to protect human health and the environment. Complying with the Clean Water Act will require upgrades to the facility’s wastewater treatment processes to reduce the contaminants entering the harbor, as well as creative solutions such as reusing the treated wastewater for irrigation, firefighting, and other beneficial uses.

If approved by the Court, the settlement agreement will resolve the first phase of the Hui’s lawsuit, which addresses whether the County requires a Clean Water Act permit for discharges from the Kealakehe WWTP. The parties would then turn to the second phase of the lawsuit, which will address the proper remedy for the County’s ongoing, illegal discharges.

“We are happy that the County has decided not to waste further taxpayer dollars fighting the need for a Clean Water Act permit for its wastewater discharges,” said Mike Nakachi, President of Hui Mālama Honokōhau, “Local families have suffered far too long from pollution that fouls our ocean and threatens our health. We look forward to working with the County to find solutions that will benefit our community and the environment.”

The county-owned 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. 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 group is encouraging the county to recycle the wastewater, which would reduce pollution in the harbor and help conserve valuable freshwater resources.

“The settlement confirms that the County can’t avoid responsibility for polluting Honokōhau Harbor just because its wastewater enters the ocean via groundwater, as opposed to an ocean outfall,” said Elena Bryant, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the Hui. “We are now counting on the Hawaiʻi Department of Health to do its job and promptly issue a permit that will ensure that the community can safely use the harbor and adjacent waters for subsistence and recreation, as the Clean Water Act requires.”

The settlement reserves the Hui’s right to return to federal court if the Department of Health fails to take prompt action to issue an NPDES permit for discharges from the Kealakehe WWTP.

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