WAILUKU - The Maui County Department of Environmental Management has issued a call for bids to clean all 18 of its injection wells across the county.
Department Director Cheryl Okuma said the cleansing project is routine maintenance to ensure that the wells, which funnel treated wastewater up to 200 feet underground, do not break and result in sewage spills into the ocean.
But whenever the county plans to do something with its injection wells, it attracts the attention of local environmental watchdog groups.
Maui Tomorrow Foundation Executive Director Irene Bowie said she was disturbed to see the advertisement to bid on the project published in The Maui News earlier this month instead of being told about it ahead of time during a meeting of Mayor Charmaine Tavares' Wastewater Community Working Group.
Bowie said she wanted to know if the project would require "flushing out" the wells, which she believed could be damaging to the environment.
Okuma said it's a safe procedure, and there's no reason for concern. But Bowie wanted more information.
"I'm very curious about that because I have no idea about what this project is, and this was something that was never talked about in the working group," she said.
Bowie is one of 19 members in the volunteer group charged with the task of weaning the county off its reliance on the wells, which some blame for coral reef-choking algae blooms and staph infections to swimmers.
Tavares has said she would like to see all of Maui County's wastewater recycled for home and business irrigation, biofuel creation and agricultural use in the next decade. Now, about 22 percent of the water the county treats on an annual basis, or about 5 billion gallons, is recycled.
The group is expected to produce a report in December after a year of discussion on how to solve the problem, which will cost millions of dollars to build a reclaimed wastewater transmission system with waterlines and pumps.
In response to Bowie's request for more openness, Okuma said the group of community stakeholders was put together "to come up with big-picture strategies, not to get into the daily operations" of the department.
The contractor for the project will clean the wells and make sure they operate properly through performance testing, Okuma said. And any cleaning products used in the process will not be harmful to the environment, she added.
She declined to say how much the department has budgeted for the project because she wants the county to get the lowest price possible when bidding closes Aug. 18.
Okuma said a private consultant was hired more than a year ago to evaluate the county's wastewater treatment facilities, and the consultant recommended the injection well cleaning program.
"People need to realize that if we don't keep up with inspection and cleaning, we could wind up with a spill," Okuma said. "This project will also make them more efficient."
Hundreds of thousands of injection wells are used throughout the United States to dispose of treated wastewater, but they still ignite passions - and lawsuits - particularly in Maui County.
The county remains at odds with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its long-delayed application to renew its permits to use injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Treatment Facility. However, Okuma said that the two sides have been meeting, and progress is being made toward a settlement.
Still, in June, the EPA ordered the county to conduct water sampling and testing off West Maui, saying two studies found "substantial evidence" that wastewater injected into the ground was seeping out of Kaanapali springs.
Recently, the Maui Planning Commission sided with the administration in a contested case hearing with the grass-roots group DIRE (Don't Inject, Redirect) Coalition over a plan to replace two injection wells with new ones, and cap the old ones, at the Kahului-Wailuku Wastewater Reclamation Facility, Okuma said. The final details still need to be filed by the body, but her department prevailed and will receive its special management area permit, Okuma said.
Finally, almost a year ago, the Puko'a O Kama Alliance, which is made up of South Maui residents, filed a lawsuit against the Kihei Wastewater Reclamation Facility. The suit seeks an injunction to stop injecting wastewater into the ground, saying the practice damages reefs and pollutes the ocean. Developer Everett Dowling's company Keaka LLC intervened in a lawsuit filed against the county seeking to stop the use of injection wells in South Maui.
The case is pending before 2nd Circuit Court Judge Joel August, but no trial date has been set, according to recent online court documents.
The county maintains that "studies do not prove that nutrients from these wells are the sole or most significant source of blooms or reef damage," according to the Maui County website. It states that storm water and fertilizer runoff, human contact, dirt blown into the ocean and overfishing are other major factors.
"Let me put it this way: If we focus on what beneficial use we can put our recycled water to, then the whole issue about injection wells is addressed," Okuma said. "Then it's less that will be going down to the injection wells."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* This article includes a correction from the original published on Saturday, July 31, 2010. The story incorrectly implied that developer Everett Dowling was part of the group that filed the lawsuit against the county.