02 • 01 • 2018

Maui Water Quality Wins at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

By Angela Howe

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Surfrider Foundation and coastal water quality protection today, holding that Maui County has violated the Clean Water Act by injecting millions of gallons of treated sewage each day into groundwater, which leaks contamination into the Pacific Ocean. Since the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility injection wells are “point sources” of pollution from wastewater effluent, they require a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit under the Clean Water Act. The County has never sought nor adhered to the requirements of a NPDES permit to regulate its illegal discharges. This ruling signifies that the polluting wastewater plant has been violating the Clean Water Act since it was put into operation in the early 1980's and that the discharge must cease.

In 2012, Surfrider Foundation, Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, and West Maui Preservation Association filed a lawsuit against the County of Maui for operating the polluting Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility on West Maui. Earthjustice represented the plaintiffs successfully in proving a violation of the Clean Water Act at the lower District Court in 2014 and now with a successful Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling today.

Surfrider and co-Plaintiffs argued that the Clean Water Act protections should expand to anywhere that a hydrological connection between point source and navigable waters exists. A tracer dye study tested the link between groundwater and nearshore waters and demonstrated a hydrological connection from the injected wastewater to the Pacific Ocean.  The EPA funded study provided the evidence needed to show violation of the Clean Water Act. 

The harms caused by the injection well discharges affect Maui's fragile marine ecosystems. The contamination causes significant algal blooms from the injection wells that leak into the nearshore waters. The Maui Chapter of Surfrider Foundation filed this suit in order to protect the sensitive coral reefs at Kahekili, as well as public users of the popular beach park, from harmful pollution. The algal blooms have been a recurring problem along the West Maui coast for the last two decades by smothering the coral reefs, causing serious long-term degradation of the ecosystem, and posing a public health risk to people recreating in the water.

“This is a tremendous victory for those who use the Kahekili Beach and for all Americans who care about protecting our nation’s oceans, rivers and streams,” said Earthjustice staff attorney David Henkin. “No more can the County of Maui or other polluters attempt to circumvent the Clean Water Act by using groundwater as a sewer to carry pollution into the ocean or waterbodies.”