Study finds liquid flows from Maui wells to ocean

HONOLULU (AP) — A recent study confirms liquid flows through wells used by a Maui wastewater plant into the ocean via underwater springs close to shore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Friday.

University of Hawaii researchers conducted the study amid concerns from officials and environmentalists that coral reefs and the ocean are being harmed by treated wastewater pumped into the injection wells by the Lahaina plant.

Earlier this year, four community groups sued Maui County, saying millions of gallons of wastewater injected into wells at the facility each day surface off Kahekili Beach Park, killing coral and triggering outbreaks of invasive algae.

The Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility disposes of 3 to 5 million gallons of treated wastewater daily through four injection wells that send fluid deep underground.

In the study, researchers put a tracer substance into the injection wells near the Kaanapali coast. They later detected the tracer coming out of underwater springs less than 30 yards from the shoreline.

EPA Pacific Southwest Region ground water office manager David Albright said the study doesn’t say the wells are the cause of coral reef decline. More research is needed on this issue, he said.

“To establish that there’s a direct hydrologic link between the injection wells and the very shallow coastal seeps is an important step,” Albright said. “It just doesn’t say that that’s therefore the cause of the problem. There’s no causal link being established here at all.”

The EPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Health paid for the study, which began in July 2011.

Albright said a final report would be issued next July encompassing the conclusions announced Friday along with other data that’s being collected.

The injection wells have a permit from the EPA, which expired but was administratively extended.

Diminishing water supply concern for new council

WAILUKU – Council Member Riki Hokama reopened the issue of moving the Central Maui sewage treatment plant inland at a meeting of the Water Resources Committee on Tuesday.

It was a surprise from the fiscally conservative Hokama. While he was off the council because of term limits, the County Council debated the wisdom of moving the Wailuku-Kahului plant (which is in a tsunami zone near the airport), but it shied away from the price tag of $300 million to $400 million.

But as long as members of the new council were throwing out surprising ideas, Council Member Joe Pontanilla mused that perhaps the county should “have an ordinance about how much greenery to put in” in landscaped dry areas.

He didn’t pursue that, but it showed that the council is concerned about diminishing water supplies.

The item under discussion was a report from the Department of Environmental Management about ways to increase the use of treated sewage effluent from the Wailuku-Kahului Wastewater Reclamation Facility.

All the public testimony was in favor of making more use of reclaimed water. Even if it means higher rates and fees, said Irene Bowie, executive director of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation.

It would. Department of Environmental Management Director Kyle Ginoza said he had anticipated such a question, and the cheapest alternative would mean about a $5-per-month increase in water rates if spread out over the whole county.

VIEWPOINT: Sewage disposal is a serious matter

Maui News staff writer Harry Eagar’s Nov. 15 column expressed unfounded opinions that trivialized a serious community issue. Sewage disposal is no laughing matter. It is a quality of life issue for all who live on Maui, our visitor industry and those voiceless ones who inhabit Maui’s waters.

Concerns about the connection between effluent disposal, water quality and reef decline are shared by scientists and environmental professionals tasked with safeguarding water and natural resources. The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources (hawaii.gov/dlnr/dar/pubs/MauiReefDeclines.pdf) identified land-based pollutants as part of the problem causing coal decline. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered Maui County to characterize the pollutants in the effluent and to identify where the effluent goes after injection. The state Department of Health has declared coastal waters near the wells as impaired due to presence of nutrients and other pollutants (hawaii.gov/health/environmental/env-planning/wqm/2006_Integrated_Report/2006_Chapter_IV_Assessment_of_Waters.pdf).

There is substantial evidence that the effluents injected into the groundwater at county treatment plants is reaching the ocean. The presence of effluent indicators in ocean water was found by the University of Hawaii and the U.S. Geological Survey. There is no scientific evidence supporting Eagar’s assertion that coral not only eat sewage, but love it.

Corals love sewage!

This the a bit different from the Off Deadline column in today’s print edition. The editors took out the joke about vitamin C, and I’ve put it back in.

Psst! Wanna know a secret? The environmentalists don’t want you to hear this, but corals eat sewage. Really. They love the stuff. The Maui Wastewater Working Group held 13 meetings to convict treated sewage put down injection wells of killing reefs. It’s too bad they didn’t take a field trip to the Central Laboratory at the Kihei Wastewater Treatment Plant to see some effluent in action. Such visits are discouraged by the health monitors, but my wife does the testing and I’ve watched her. There are several tests, but the relevant one for injection wells puts a sample of treated wastewater – the PC name for sewage – through a centrifuge, which deposits whatever sewage is left on circles of glistening white filter paper. Filter is the key word here. Corals (and marine worms and lots of other reef critters) are filter feeders. The Kihei and Lahaina plants make R1 effluent, the good stuff, while Kahului makes R2, not as clean. Usually, when the plant is functioning well (which is most of the time), on most of the discs I cannot tell any difference between the clean and the sampled filter paper. On a few, there may be the faintest brown tinge. It takes a magnifying glass to tell sometimes.