Victory! On Friday, November 19, 2021, Surfrider Foundation and co-plaintiffs declared victory in the Lahaina Injection Wells. In 2012, after years of trying to negotiate to find workable solutions, environmental groups, including the Surfrider Foundation, Sierra Club Maui Group, West Maui Preservation Association and Hawaii Wildlife Fund sued the County of Maui for violating the Clean Water Act by pumping 3-5 millions of gallons of treated sewage into groundwater each day. This polluted groundwater eventually seeps into the ocean, impacting Maui’s marine life and coral reefs.
The Clean Water Act (“CWA”) requires those who discharge pollutants into navigable waters from pipes or wells to obtain a federal permit. The district court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal agreed with the plaintiffs, but the County appealed to the Supreme Court. The question presented to the Supreme Court was whether the CWA requires a permit when pollution originates from a point source (like the wastewater plant on Maui) but is conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source, such as groundwater here.
On April 23, 2020, in a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court refused to allow a large loophole in the Clean Water Act and found that liability for pollution exists “when there is direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters or when there is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge.” Per this definition, the ruling also determined that the polluted groundwater from the County of Maui’s injection wells could be a violation of the Clean Water Act. The Supreme Court ruling was a crucial victory in the fight for clean water - not only on the island of Maui, but also nationwide by ensuring the integrity of the Clean Water Act and requiring pollutors to follow strict regulations and guidelines for the discharge of pollutants.
The case was sent back to the Hawai'i district courts where the judge ruled, once again, in favor of Surfrider Foundation and its co-plaintiffs, and ending the lawsuit. Per a previous settlement agreement, this means that the County of Maui must now:
Surfrider Foundation will help usher in the water quality improvements, including maximizing the beneficial use of recycled water on Maui. This will include a reduction or elimination of injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility. The County is already involved in rehabilitation of upper-elevation reservoirs in the area; this will allow water to be pumped and stored for use on the slopes to provide water for irrigation as well as establish a greenbelt for fire protection.