LAHAINA >> Four community groups are suing Maui County in federal court over alleged environmental violations at a Lahaina treatment plant.
The groups claim millions of gallons of wastewater injected into wells at the facility each day surface offshore of Kahekili Beach Park, killing coral and triggering outbreaks of invasive algae.
Earthjustice filed the complaint Monday on behalf of Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Surfrider Foundation, West Maui Preservation Association and Sierra Club-Maui Group. They notified the county of their intent to sue last year, alleging Clean Water Act violations have been ongoing for at least 20 years.
“We notified Maui County last June that its Lahaina facility was damaging the reef and operating illegally, in hope that the county would voluntarily seek the required permit for wastewater discharges from the injection wells,” said Earthjustice attorney Caroline Ishida. “Unfortunately, it apparently takes an enforcement action to get the county to do anything, which is why we’re not seeking relief from the court.”
County spokesman Rod Antone said corporation counsel attorneys had yet to receive the complaint, but that pending litigation prevents officials from commenting.
The suit asks that the county be directed to secure a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit
Attorneys for Earthjustice announced Wednesday they had filed a notice of intent to sue Maui County over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility.
The notice claims that the county has known for years that treated wastewater injected into the ground at the facility percolates into the ocean nearby, but has not made good on promises to phase out the injection wells or obtained a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit to allow the discharge.
It also states that, although the wastewater receives some treatment, it still contains bacteria that presents health risks to ocean users, as well as nitrogen and other nutrients that can stimulate reef-smothering algae blooms offshore.
County officials said they were operating the treatment plant under permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Health, and had been working cooperatively with state and federal officials to make sure they were in compliance with all their permit conditions.
Part of that cooperation includes conducting tracer and seep studies to determine if a discharge permit is needed for the facility, they said, noting that the EPA had not yet determined if such a permit was required.
WAILUKU – If you ask Department of Water Supply Director Dave Taylor what keeps him awake at night, he might think of something lurking in the depths of a 647-foot-long tunnel.
A single, aging pump, accessible only by descending to the very bottom of “Shaft 33,” a 65-year-old well above Wailuku, is responsible for delivering more than 5 million gallons of water per day to Central and South Maui. If the pump were to fail, thousands of residents could be without water until it was repaired – and that would be a long wait, he said.
“This kind of thing would be very, very hard to fix,” he said. “It’s difficult even to get to.”
While voters clamor for the county to provide more water to a growing population – and politicians promise to deliver it – Taylor said one of his biggest jobs will be to remind people that the county first needs to take care of the water customers it already serves. And that can take a lot of time and money in a system that includes more than 750 miles of pipelines; infrastructure located deep in mountainous jungles; and century-old water intakes and ditches that must integrate with state-of-the-art treatment plants.
“All the discussion is about expanding service,” he said. “There’s very little discussion about what it takes to keep reliable service to existing customers.”
Calling Shaft 33 one of the system’s weakest links, Taylor said it’s imperative that the county continue a project that is already under way to replace the aging well with three smaller, modern ones tapping into the same aquifer.
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.
WAILUKU – Maui County Mayor-elect Alan Arakawa named six new members to his Cabinet on Monday, including two key people to help him achieve his campaign goals, Danny Agsalog as director of the Department of Finance and Dave Taylor as director of the Department of Water Supply.
With the stumbling economy still heavy on most people’s minds, and job creation and finding more water on the lips of political candidates this election season, Arakawa chose people he was familiar with – and who are educated and experienced – to run the county’s finance and water departments, he said.
Arakawa also picked former longtime and award-winning television and print journalist Rod Antone as the county and mayor’s spokesman, replacing Mahina Martin. In addition, Arakawa chose deputy directors for the water and finance departments as well as for county communications.
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.