Maui Lawmakers Scheduled to Vote on Water Pollution Settlement

Sep 20, 2019

A federal court ruled Valley Isle wastewater treatment plants violate the Clean Water Act. The island’s mayor wants to challenge the ruling at the Supreme Court, but lawmakers want to settle. A decision may come down to a Maui County Council vote today. 

The case centers on the disposal of treated wastewater at a facility in Lahaina. The plant uses wells to inject freshwater effluent underground, rather than discharging it directly into the ocean.

County officials maintain that is a cheaper and less impactful method to dispose of wastewater. It’s cheaper, in part, because groundwater injections are not covered by the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, which regulates discharges into surface waters like oceans, lakes and rivers.

But a 2012 geologic study commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proved the injection well discharge from the Lahaina plant does eventually make its way to the ocean, placing it under the umbrella of the Clean Water Act.

A coalition of Maui-based environmental groups sued the county, arguing discharge from the plant was in violation of the Clean Water Act and is responsible for algal blooms and the decline of nearshore coral reefs.

A lower federal court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, declaring that the Lahaina Wastewater Treatment Facility was governed by the Clean Water Act. County officials have appealed, and the case is currently slated to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in the upcoming term.

A Supreme Court ruling would have national implications, setting a new precedent for how the Clean Water Act can be applied. Several similar suits around the country would also be affected by a decision.

Pro-environment members of the Maui County Council concerned about the high court’s current conservative makeup have been pushing to settle the case before the nine-justice body hears arguments. They want to settle with the environmental groups bringing suit, and are using a rarely-evoked clause of the county charter that allows them to bypass the mayor and directly enter into a settlement agreement.

As part of the proposed deal, the county would have to make a good faith effort to get its wastewater injection wells into compliance with the Clean Water Act. In return, environmental groups would agree not to bring additional lawsuits against other similar facilities.

But Maui’s executive opposes that idea. Mayor Mike Victorino, formerly a member of the legislative arm of the county government, says withdrawing the court case will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and result in higher municipal sewer rates.

In a written statement issued ahead of Friday’s meeting, Victorino said a settlement will open up the county to fines of almost $1 million per day for Clean Water Act violations. That would be in addition to an estimated $600 million to $800 million to retrofit injection wells at four county wastewater treatment facilities.

Victorino says Maui consumers and businesses will shoulder the financial burden through increases to municipal sewer rates, which his administration estimates would triple in the next 10 years under a settlement.

Councilmembers say it’s not about the money, but rather setting a good example of responsible environmental stewardship. In its final committee hearing, the settlement resolution passed by a 5-3 vote with one absent.

Five votes are needed to pass a measure before the full nine-member council.