Column: Maui should stop its legal challenge against Clean Water Act

By Tim Lara

“A dirty little secret on Maui is becoming a nationwide embarrassment for our island and entire state.

For nearly a decade, Maui County has fought in the courts so that its Lahaina wastewater treatment plant could continue to pump millions of gallons per day of treated sewage into nearby reefs through underground injection wells. Under prior leadership, the county has paid mainland lawyers millions of dollars to fight the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court so that it can keep polluting the ocean through underground disposal.

Those were wasted years, and wasted taxpayer dollars. Instead, we should have spent that money on fixing the problem and investing in water recycling solutions. Meanwhile, the ocean reef environment in the popular diving area off Kahekili Beach Park have suffered.

I have snorkeled in that area for years and have seen firsthand how pollution from the Lahaina plant has turned the reefs into a wasteland. Scientists have confirmed that the Lahaina wastewater is going directly into the ocean through the groundwater.

Now in this more enlightened time, the county is moving to modernize its wastewater disposal practices and get serious about water recycling, which will help Maui conserve its scarce water resources. We finally seem to be turning in the right direction.

So now is also the time for new county leadership to stop the senseless legal challenge before the Supreme Court, which threatens to dismantle the federal Clean Water Act. This law is the bedrock protection of clean water for the entire nation, which was passed by overwhelming majorities in Congress and signed into law by President Nixon in 1972.

The county’s fight against the Clean Water Act is being joined by America’s biggest corporate polluters and opponents of environmental protection, who would love to be able to get around the law by simply sticking their pipes into the ground.

Recently uncovered documents revealed that Maui County’s attorneys have also worked directly with the Trump administration on this case. The administration urged the Supreme Court to take the case and has joined the county in arguing that the Clean Water Act excludes any and all pollution that reaches our nation’s surface waters through groundwater. This new announcement reverses the position of the Obama administration and decades of Democratic and Republican administrations before that.

It’s been embarrassing to see Maui make national news like this in alliance with the Trump administration. But it would be truly tragic if Maui went down in infamy as leading the charge to gut the Clean Water Act.

Maui should be ready and able to solve this issue at home and lead the way for the nation in protecting clean water, a priceless resource for our island society and economy that our residents, businesses, and visitors alike depend on and treasure.

Last month, the Democratic Party of Maui passed a unanimous resolution urging the county to withdraw its appeal and instead focus on solutions to reduce and control pollution from the Lahaina plant and promote water reuse. I would like to believe that Maui’s new mayor and County Council will see this opportunity to unite, turn a new page, and stop the attack on the Clean Water Act before it’s too late.”

Tim Lara is former chairman of the Democratic Party of Maui County and a leader in sustainable tourism.