HONOLULU - 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 that 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 now 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, which would set limits on pollutants that can be discharged from wells.
In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required the county to disinfect wastewater it discharges into deep underground porous rock at Lahaina. The agency required the county to install a nonchlorine disinfection system by 2013.
The county has met various milestones associated with the order, including submitting a long-term plan, David Albright, manager of the groundwater office for the EPA's Pacific Southwest Region, said Monday.
The injection wells do have a permit from the EPA, which expired but was administratively extended, Albright said. The permit the lawsuit is seeking hasn't been a requirement for the county, he said.
The EPA has, however, asked the county to apply for a water-quality certification through the state Department of Health, Albright said. He said that application remains under review.
County officials have said the water-quality certification could be a first step in determining whether the discharge permit is needed.
The EPA is also working with researchers on a study that involves injecting tracer dye into the facility's injection wells and monitoring areas where fresh water seeps into the ocean for signs of dye.
"That dye has been found at the seep locations," Albright said, adding that further study is needed. The study is expected to wrap up by the end of the year.
"We'll have a much clearer picture about what the situation is there in Lahaina," Albright said. "We are working cooperatively with the state authorities and scientific researchers to collect the best science we can to make whatever further decisions need to be made."
* The Maui News contributed to this report.