Maui Mayor 'Disappointed' In County Committee Backing Of Settlement In Wastewater Case

Sep 7, 2019

Updated: Sept. 8, 3:10 p.m.

WAILUKU, Hawaii — Maui Mayor Michael Victorino on Sunday criticized a decision by a County Council comnittee to recommend acceptance of a settlement proposal with environmental groups that sued over the use of injection wells.

Members of the Maui County Committee on Governance, Ethics, and Transparency voted 5-3 on Friday to recommend that the full council settle and withdraw the case ahead of U.S. Supreme Court consideration in November, The Maui News reported.

Under the agreement, Maui County would be expected to reduce reliance on the injection wells, reimburse the groups' litigation costs and abide by a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, or an equivalent control document, officials said.

Victorino said he was disappointed that the council committee did not consider his settlement proposal before its vote. 

"Discussion of my proposed settlement offer needed to be in a closed executive session, outside of the hearing of opposing counsel in the case. I question the decision by some council members not to even consider at [sic] my proposal," he stated.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed in 2012 by environmental groups including Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Surfrider Foundation, West Maui Preservation Association and the Sierra Club over the use of injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility, officials said. The groups claim the wastewater was damaging to the reefs and polluted the water.

The U.S. District Court in Hawaii ruled in 2014 that the injection wells violated the federal Clean Water Act. The environmental groups then won their case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the county is seeking a decision from the Supreme Court.

Maui County applied for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit several years ago for injection wells as ordered by the previous decision in district court, officials said. However, the state Department of Health does not know how to manage such a permit.

"Issuing another permit is not going to solve the problem, it's a paper process," department director Bruce Anderson said. "The solution is going to be in a way to reclaim that water and cease to use those injection wells (unless in) heavy rain or times you can't use (the water) for irrigation."

Those seeking to settle the case worry about the impacts of ocean pollution and have said a decision in the case would lean in favor of President Donald Trump's new Environmental Protection Agency leadership, which has been seen as easing environmental restrictions. It could set a precedent that could allow for further pollution of waterways by indirect means.

A withdrawal of the case could have ramifications for cesspool owners, who may face fines and be required to obtain permits, supporters of the appeal said. For the county, that means figuring out what to do with the injection well water and potentially facing costly wastewater upgrades.

Victorino said the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision expanding the Clean Water Act could have severe effects on the county's already tight housing market.

"For County and private projects, we are now looing at costly and possibly unattainable permits, adding expense and uncertainty," the mayor said. "People already worried about the cost of cesspool conversion at some future date, may now have to do that much sooner, and septic systems in certain areas will likely not be options because they violate the Clean Water Act under the Ninth Circuit's decision."

He said he hopes the full council will consider the consequences before its final vote.