Legal, Water Quality
April 02 2018

The Ninth Circuit Denies Rehearing for Maui Injection Well Case: Water Quality Victory Stands

by Angela Howe

This decision is an important affirmation of Clean Water Act protections across the nation.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request for rehearing 'en banc' (or by the full court), for the Surfrider Foundation's Clean Water Act case in Maui. By rejecting the Maui County's petition for rehearing, the Ninth Circuit upheld the strong victory for water quality against polluting injection wells. The Surfrider Foundation and our co-plaintiffs brought the suit in April of 2012 to protect sensitive reef habitat, water quality and the health of everyone who goes into the water off of the Northwest coast of Maui. The federal District Court ruled that the county's wastewater plant did, in fact, violate the Clean Water Act in January of 2015, which was followed by the County's Ninth Circuit appeal.

On February 1, 2018, the appellate court ruled in favor of protecting water quality, siding with the arguments brought forth by the Surfrider Foundation, Hawai'i Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, and West Maui Preservation Association, as represented by Earthjustice. That ruling held that Maui County had violated the Clean Water Act by injecting three to five million of gallons of treated sewage each day into groundwater, which leaks contamination into the Pacific Ocean. Specifically, the county's wastewater facility that was put into operation in the early 1980s, named the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility, acted as an unpermitted point source of pollution under the Clean Water Act. The court ruled to protect Maui's fragile marine ecosystem from impaired water quality and harmful algal blooms by requiring the illegal discharges to stop. In 2015, the county agreed that, if it lost its appeal, it would invest $2.5 million in infrastructure upgrades to allow treated effluent from the Lahaina facility to be reused for irrigation, rather than dumped into the ocean. According to Earthjustice, to date, Maui County has authorized expenditures of over $3.5 million for private lawyers to litigate this case.

After the initial Ninth Circuit ruling, industry groups and 18 conservative state attorneys general had argued for the rehearing, but were denied. This decision is an important affirmation of Clean Water Act protections across the nation. Not a single one of the Ninth Circuit’s 25 active judges even asked for a vote on whether to reconsider the original panel’s decision.

A County representative stated that they will take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. While that remains to be seen, the Surfrider Foundation will continue to fight for clean water inside and outside of the courtroom.