Surfrider Maui Fights to Protect Clean Water Across the U. S.

by Mara Dias

As Surfrider and our coalition partners prepare to head to the U. S. Supreme Court in early November to protect the Clean Water Act and compel the County of Maui to stop polluting the ocean with discharges of partially treated sewage from the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility, there has been a flurry of grassroots activity on the ground. This has been nurturing growing community pressure to convince the Maui County Council to withdraw their appeal and settle the case.

The Surfrider Foundation Maui Chapter and our local coalition partners, including Earthjustice, Sierra Club Maui Group, Hawaii Wildlife Fund and West Maui Preservation Association, have been holding community forums, circulating petitions and encouraging diverse community voices to speak up and offer testimony. The main goal of these grassroots efforts is to convince the Maui County Council to settle the legal case and develop long-term solutions for the beneficial reuse of the Lahaina plant’s wastewater that will protect Hawaii’s reefs and valuable freshwater resources.

As a result of this groundswell of support, the Maui County Council’s Committee on Governance, Ethics, and Transparency voted on September 6, 2019, in favor of a settlement for the County of Maui to withdraw its appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court over the continued use of injection wells by the Lahaina wastewater plant. The vote was 5-3, with Council Chair Kelly King, Committee Chair Mike Molina, Tamara Paltin, Vice-chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, and Shane Sinenci all supporting settlement. A big thanks goes out to everyone who showed up (there were over 300 people in attendance at the Committee hearing) and raised their voice (or pen) in support of clean water.  We are also very thankful to the council members who listened to the voices of their community and are choosing to seek responsible, long-term solutions for the County’s water management needs over continued pollution. Read moreabout the recent hearing where 64 members of the public, environmental groups and a hearteningly large contingency of local students and youth, shared their concerns for clean water in Maui and across the U. S.. 

While this recommendation from the committee is a big step in the right direction, a potential settlement must still be considered and approved by the full County Council so there is still work to do to uphold Clean Water Act protections in Maui and across the nation.  The Council will be considering this matter and receiving public testimony this friday, September 20, 2019.

Members of Surfrider Foundation Maui, Earthjustice, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Hawaii Wildlife Fund and West Maui Preservation Association present a petition with 15,962 at the office of Maui County Council Chair Kelly King (photo by Sierra Club-Maui Group)

What’s at stake?

This case is about more than protecting water quality and the coral reef ecosystem at Kahekili Beach Park where the injected wastewater ends up in the Pacific Ocean. This case is also about defending the Clean Water Act and its ability to protect our waterways from pollution, regardless of the route of discharge into protected waterways.

The County of Maui argues that it does not require Clean Water Act permits for its pollution because it is discharging partially-treated sewage through groundwater and not directly into waters of the U.S. However, the results from an EPA-funded tracer dye study, conducted by the University of Hawaii Manoa, showed conclusively that the Lahaina sewage flows with the groundwater into nearshore waters off Kahekili Beach. In addition, a 2017 peer-reviewed study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey documented the ongoing and serious harm to the Kahekili Beach reef.

Two lower courts have agreed with Surfrider and our co-plaintiffs and have ruled that the County of Maui violated the law by injecting treated sewage into the groundwater, which enters the Pacific Ocean, a protected U.S. body of water covered by the federal Clean Water Act. The resulting Ninth Circuit Opinion, written by Judge D.W. Nelson on behalf of a unanimous panel of judges, stated, “This case is about preventing the County from doing indirectly that which it cannot do directly.”

Now that this case is currently scheduled to go before the U. S. Supreme Court, the Maui injection wells lawsuit is being supported by large-scale corporate polluters like the American Petroleum Institute and the National Mining Association. They are using this case to sabotage the Clean Water Act and possibly reduce liability for environmental disasters like cyanide drainage from mines and leaking oil pipelines. Learn more about the legal case here

What can you do to help?

If you live on Maui, Show Up and Be Heard! There is ONE more vote to go to settle the case when the full County Council meets on Sept 20 at 9:00am on the 8th floor of the County Building at 200 High Street, Wailuku, Maui.  Please come and wear BLUE to remind those who voted “Yes”- that they are still supported and much appreciated! 

If you can’t make the hearing in person, please use this action alert to ask the Mayor and all Council Members to support settlement of the Lahaina case. 

Regardless of where you live across the nation, if clean water is important to you and you’d like to continue to rely on the Clean Water Act to protect water quality in your community, please use this action hosted by our coalition partners at the Sierra Club Maui Group, to thank Committee Chair Mike Molina and all the committee members who voted to support responsible water management on Maui and settle the lawsuit. Just click here to send in your thanks. 

Kaheliki Beach is a popular destination enjoyed by swimmers, snorkelers and paddlers