Mayor confronted over injection wells
Victorino still firm on stance that case should be decided by US Supreme Court
LAHAINA — Community members confronted Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino on Tuesday night over his decision to move forward with the controversial injection wells case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Victorino made it clear that he is leaving the final decision in the hands of the court for “clarity and direction,” to determine whether Maui County violated the Clean Water Act by disposing of wastewater through injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility.
“We want to do it right, and we’ve been working to do it right, so that’s why I want clarity, I want direction,” he said Tuesday night during a meeting at the Kaunoa Senior Center in Lahaina. “I want the highest court in the land to say ‘this is the way we do it’ and that way we won’t have no question in where we spend our money and how we get it done and to credit you, the people of Maui County.”
However, the majority of the 20 attendees that spoke or brought questions during the two-hour meeting were less than pleased with the mayor’s choice to overrule the Maui County Council’s 5-4 vote to settle the case.
“The council wen’ vote to settle because they listened to the people, but I want to ask you straight up so that everybody else can hear, why did you decide to bring it to the Supreme Court? Because people talked and they said settle,” said Lahaina resident Junya Nakoa. “According to what I heard, there was more testimonies to settle. . . . I like know for sure, and I think the people like know why you went to the Supreme Court.”
Victorino explained that time, money and effort would be saved down the line by allowing the U.S. Supreme Court to make the ultimate decision, saying there hasn’t been clarity yet on how to handle the situation the “right way,” considering that the circuit courts around the country are split over their rulings.
When asked what he feels the final outcome will be, Victorino said that he “will not venture to guess,” but “it’s not going to change the Clean Water Act, I’m certain of that.”
Because of ongoing litigation, the mayor also said he could not answer every question that was asked Tuesday.
Maui County is currently awaiting a decision on the injection wells from the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case Nov. 6.
The dispute goes back to 2012, when the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation and West Maui Preservation Association sued the county over its use of the injection wells. Lower courts have ruled that the wells are a violation of the Clean Water Act, but the county has appealed the decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Hoping to withdraw the case before then, the council voted to settle, but Victorino decided to move forward. He’s currently facing a lawsuit over that decision.
At the Tuesday night meeting, residents said that their testimonies “don’t feel heard” and questioned whether the mayor is “willing to jeopardize clean water” across the U.S. for the sake of clarification and direction.
“Both courts that we went to ruled in favor of the county fixing the issue, they said that we were in the wrong and we needed to get the permit, so that’s two courts, and then the county council voted to settle,” said Haiku resident Jennifer Karaca, an executive assistant to Council Vice-Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez. “Why aren’t we listening to the two courts? Why aren’t we listening to the council? Why are we listening to the members who showed up and submitted testimony, and the ones who couldn’t show up?”
Lahaina resident Ke’eau-moku Kapu was tired of excuses.
“All you guys doing is rambling on and trying to find excuses, at the same time going to the Supreme Court to try to figure out whether or not the Supreme Court will allow, at a certain percentage, of how much s— we can put back in the ocean. That is really, really upsetting to me,” Kapu said. “Are we putting ourselves in a worse predicament all because the county envisions more homes to be built on the west side and make sure we can handle the capacity of homes before we start building?”
Kapu added that this injection well case needs to be top priority over any housing project because “we cannot not handle the infrastructure we have right now” along with the pending developments.
“Fix the problem, or there will be bigger problems,” he said.
During the meeting, which grew heated at times, Victorino interrupted multiple speakers.
Environmental scientist Robin Knox said that the county doesn’t have to wait for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit before it can start reducing pollution.
“You can start reducing pollution without a permit, it’s called treatment and . . . ,” Knox began.
“And we are treating it the best that we can,” Victorino interrupted. “Our water is the best water.”
“No, you’re not, and that’s what I’m trying to say,” Knox responded. “What I’m trying to say is that we haven’t talked about nitrogen and that’s a big issue with our reefs and there’s more than solid separation and liquid separation going on.
“There’s removal of oxygen demand, there’s removal of nutrients,” she added. “It means doing more than the minimum required in terms of nitrogen removal, but we are in charge of the reefs and so, we need to right away — and we’ve been needing to do this for 10 years — reduce pollution, and reducing the pollution, from numbers that I heard your staff give, costs a tenth of reuse costs.”
At one point, after multiple interruptions, Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Albert Perez asked that everybody in the room let each other finish their questions.
Maui injects 3 million to 5 million gallons of treated wastewater per day into wells beneath the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility, which sits about a half-mile from the Pacific shoreline.
Sewage plants are required to have a permit under the Clean Water Act when pollutants go through a pipe from their source to a body of water. The question in this case is whether a permit is needed when the pollutant first passes through the soil or groundwater.
Eric Nakagawa, director of Environmental Management, said during the meeting that the Water Reclamation Division Recycled Water Program recycled about 1.1 billion gallons last year and costs about $1 million each year to operate. The goal is to recycle 100 percent of the water in the future, he added.
“We are working to utilize it all over this county, but here in West Maui, as the director has told you, we are spending money and effort to get the old reservoir, which is at the 700-foot elevation, which we hope to close the deal by the end of this year,” Victorino said. “We hope to score 3 to 4 million gallons a day and distribute it throughout the hillside to make green zones and reduce brush fires, which we all know has been a scourge in Maui County this past summer.
“We’ve had more brush fires and the largest acreage ever burned in our history, and so this is something that we need to continue to work at,” he added.
Victorino also said that recycled water has grown to the number one most used water source for agriculture.
Nakagawa said that all state, federal and county requirements, permits, mandates and procedures are met at the wastewater facility, and added that there is heavy regulation over the facility and its equipment and relative infrastructure for any safety concerns.
But Knox asked for clarification on how the injection wells are being regulated.
“From my understanding is that they are heavily regulated to protect drinking water, and the problem is, is that they’re not regulated enough under the kind of permit that protects the ocean,” Knox said.
Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the facility is allowed a maximum of 10 milligrams of nitrogen per liter; however, Knox said that nitrogen levels must be much lower — 8 micrograms per liter — before it reaches the ocean.
Victorino agreed with Knox about increasing water quality monitoring and inspection, but noted that there are other issues leading to reef degradation outside of nitrogen, such as global warming, man-made runoff, sunscreens, overfishing and other culprits.
During the meeting, Victorino’s wife Joycelyn also came to his defense, calling him a “very fair and very logical man,” and saying that every choice he makes is for the Maui community.
“I assure you, I’m with Mike very often in the public, and yes, we do listen to what people have to say,” she said. “Many of our local people, they’re shy, they don’t like to come out publicly and say how they feel (in testimony), but many have expressed to Mike and I about how they feel and that they encourage and support what the mayor has decided to do.”
She added that her husband “has to take all this information, analyze it, evaluate it and again.”
“Mike seeks the advice of professionals in this area, and with all that information, he has to make the best decision he can,” she said. “Not that he is disrespecting any of you. Thank you for your time. We respect you, we appreciate you, and again, he has to make the best decision for the majority of our people. He’s human just like us.”
The meeting wrapped up around 7 p.m. when the mayor thanked everyone for their input and said he would take all comments under consideration.
“I love these islands, I love this ocean, I played with it all my life, I’ve enjoyed it. My father-in-law taught me many things and one is that you never take more than you need and you respect the ocean, that you take care of it and that it is your feeding grounds,” he said. “I do what I think is right, and I’m certain I am doing what is right for the people of Maui County.”
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.