WAILUKU - A group of Maui residents calling themselves the DIRE Coalition said this week that while they support Mayor Charmaine Tavares' goal of eliminating the county's injection wells, she is just not doing enough to achieve results - or as soon as is possible.
Last fall, Tavares announced her intent in the next 10 years to end the decades-old practice of pouring an average of 9 million gallons a day of recycled wastewater through 18 injection wells, which are located at the county's five sewage treatment plants. She is believed to be the first Maui County mayor to make such a pledge.
In October, she convened the Maui Wastewater Community Working Group and gave the 21 volunteer members a deadline of this December to make recommendations on how to go from 20 percent recycled water use to 100 percent.
But the mayor's group is only advisory, so three of its own members, Irene Bowie of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, environmental scientist Robin Knox and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attorney Jeffrey Schwartz, formed a parallel group, "Don't Inject, Re-direct," or DIRE, they said.
Schwartz said that DIRE was needed because the county administration rejected the group's idea to form subcommittees to develop a strategic implementation plan. The working group also doesn't do enough to engage regular folks to participate, he said.
"We understood that we would be reporting to the mayor, but we're not. We're reporting to the Department of Environmental Management," said Schwartz, who along with his fellow DIRE members say they'll remain on the mayor's panel. "They told us, 'No' to the subcommittees and 'no' to a plan . . . So what we're actually doing is only planning to plan, not coming up with a way to implement it."
The mayor's spokeswoman, Mahina Martin, called DIRE "redundant," and said that the working group is already made up of citizens from a broad range of public and private sectors, including a number of water-quality experts, Native Hawaiians and farmers.
The members of DIRE and other environmentalists said the time to act is overdue. The nutrient-rich or polluted water that seeps into the ocean through injection wells kills reefs and stimulates large algae blooms, they said.
And the problem is only getting worse each day, said DIRE member and ocean biologist Hannah Bernard.
DIRE would like to see a five-year plan put in place, but members also said they understand the difficult logistics. It could take much longer as the county struggles to find funding sources for better treatment facilities, new waterlines and even customers who will accept recycled wastewater, they said.
"We believe it's a pressing enough issue that we want to move toward a solution as soon as possible," Bowie said. "Our feeling is we can supplement the work being done by the mayor's group and do a much better job of keeping the public informed."
Despite their desire to continue collaborating with Maui County, DIRE and its partner Save Kahului Harbor may have distanced themselves irreparably from elected officials by a couple of their statements and actions.
For instance, the groups filed a special management area exemption appeal, which was heard on Tuesday by the Maui Planning Commission. In it, the groups ask commissioners to reject a county request to replace two clogged-up injection wells at the Wailuku-Kahului Wastewater Reclamation Facility.
Jane Lovell, a deputy in the county Department of the Corporation Counsel, said the state Department of Health demands that the facility have eight functioning injection wells in order to retain its 2001 operating permit. Maui County officials don't have a choice, she said. The wastewater from Central Maui's toilets and bathing exists, she said.
And two new injection wells need to be drilled nearby, she said, so the county has the capacity to properly dispose of the wastewater it treats.
"Then it doesn't end up in the ocean if let's say there's a big storm," Lovell said. "We are just replacing parts that can't be fixed, like a sink that won't drain after you've called RotoRooter. In order to comply with the law and protect the environment, we need eight (injection wells) there. Unless we can find a way to stop people from flushing or taking showers."
Schwartz said the problem is that injection wells should not be the only course of action. The county essentially has been negligent by not coming up with an alternative solution by now, he said.
Thousands of injection wells exist throughout the United States. But Schwartz also said that 1,900 communities of all sizes have been able to get rid of them, too.
On its current track, the special management area permit (which is required when building almost anything near a coastline) appeal will become a contested case. The Planning Commission with either act as the judge or hire a hearing officer to review evidence.
DIRE also ruffled some feathers in the county building last week, when its members announced its formation and then called for submitting a complete reuse plan - in time for the November elections.
"We think this is an opportunity for public discussion, for the average person, and it is important to hear what the ideas are from the County Council and mayoral candidates," Schwartz said.
Tavares is up for re-election this year. And DIRE said it believes that a strategy should be in place by Sept. 15, which is three days before the primaries.
"It's disappointing that DIRE will politicize an important community issue and put their own impatience ahead of everyone else who volunteered to serve on the working group," Martin wrote in a response issued Tuesday night. "Fracturing a community-based working group because the process isn't rapid enough for you will not serve the community best."
Eliminating injection wells is a very courageous goal, Schwartz said. DIRE members just want to see more urgent efforts made to make that goal a reality, to produce a plan and broaden public involvement.
"We're not pretending we would have cost estimates and know exactly what to build and where, but we believe we can come up with a pretty good road map by September," he said.
When it comes to financing, Schwartz said there are creative ways to look at the problem, such as corporate partnerships, that have not been pursued by the mayor.
However, Tavares' supporters noted, again, that finding funding sources and planning infrastructure is exactly why she put together the working group.
Martin said that while DIRE "certainly has a prerogative to start their own task forces," it's important to note that the areas of research the splinter group identified are all already being addressed by the working group.
"In fact, the county's finance director and budget director just attended and made presentations to the working group at last week's meeting," Martin said.
Anyone who wants to join the nonprofit, DIRE, can call 244-7570.
A complete list of the Maui County Community Work Group members, as well as information about their mission and meeting dates, can be found online at co.maui.hi.us/index.aspx?NID=1495.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.
* This article includes a correction from the original published on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010. The The title of Jane Lovell was incorrect. The Maui News apologizes for the error.