Judge Says Maui County Must Get Clean Water Act Permit for Effluent
WAILUKU, Hawaiʻi — A federal judge ruled Maui County must get permits to operate injection wells that environmental groups said are polluting the ocean.
Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit in 2012 over the injection wells, saying effluent from the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility was entering the ocean and damaging coral reefs and sea life.
The groups pointed to studies that traced the discharge from two wells to the ocean.
In a ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway sided with the environmental groups and ordered Maui County to “obtain a permit under the Clean Water Act consistent with the analysis established by the Supreme Court,” The Maui News reported.
Maui County officials had refused to settle the case and brought it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019.
The Supreme Court in April 2020 ruled that injection wells fall under the Clean Water Act.
The county argued that treated wastewater from injection wells did not require permits under the Clean Water Act because the discharge did not go directly into the ocean.
In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court said that the discharge of polluted water in the ground, rather than directly into nearby waterways, does not relieve an industry of complying with the Clean Water Act.
David Henkin, an attorney from Earthjustice who argued the case, said Thursday’s order could be the end of legal proceedings unless the county decides to appeal again.
“We are hopeful that the mayor will stop wasting taxpayer resources on courts and focus on what he says he wants to do,” Henkin said, noting the administration has said it is committed to reusing the Lahaina wastewater.
If that is the case, he said, “then stop fighting in court and trying to gut the Clean Water Act and just focus on that task, which is frankly all our clients who are all Maui residents ever asked the county."
Maui County Communications Director Brian Perry said Thursday that the county is “disappointed” in the ruling “but prides itself on its environmental stewardship that began decades ago when its leaders made the decision to focus on water reclamation and reuse rather than ocean outfalls.”
He said the Lahaina facility treats incoming wastewater to “the highest quality in the state.” The recycled water is used for irrigation, he said.
“A troubling aspect to this ruling is the potential impact to the county’s recycled water program,” Perry said. “The county will continue to analyze the impact of this ruling.”