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Council member urges county to end injection wells case

Chairwoman calls for unity between council, administration

The Maui News

Council Member Kelly Takaya King is calling for the county to end its yearslong legal battle over West Maui injection wells after a federal judge once again sided with four conservation groups who sued the county in 2012.

King urged Mayor Michael Victorino not to appeal after U.S. District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway of the District of Hawaii issued an order Thursday saying that Maui County “must obtain a permit under the Clean Water Act consistent with the analysis established by the Supreme Court.”

“Yesterday’s ruling should be our final wakeup call,” King said in a news release on Friday. “The issue has been clarified, and there is no reason to appeal or prolong the inevitable.”

In 2012, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation and West Maui Preservation Association filed a lawsuit against the county over its practice of injecting treated wastewater into the ground at its Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility. The groups said the effluent was reaching the ocean and impacting coral reefs and sea life.

The county contended that the discharge of treated wastewater from injection wells does not require permits under the Clean Water Act because pollutants do not flow directly into the ocean but rather indirectly through groundwater.

In September 2019, the Maui County Council voted 5-4 to approve a settlement and withdraw the county from its appeal in hopes of keeping the case from reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. Victorino pressed forward with the case, saying “the issue must be clarified once and for all.”

In April 2020, the Supreme Court sided with the Maui groups, saying that discharging the polluted water into the ground rather than directly into nearby waterways does not relieve an industry of complying with the Clean Water Act.

Mollway’s order on Thursday affirmed the county’s need for a permit.

Pursuing the case has cost county taxpayers millions of dollars, said King, who holds the South Maui residency seat.

“The main message from this case is that we hope we can learn from this experience for the future, and we shouldn’t waste precious time and resources fighting with our own residents who have legitimate concerns about the environment,” she said. “We should be collaborating with experts and advocates on solutions to move forward and obtain necessary permits, instead of continuing to fight in court for the right to pollute.”

Maui County spokesman Brian Perry said in response to King’s statement on Friday that “Maui County is reviewing the court’s ruling. Next steps have not been determined.”

Meanwhile, efforts to make the county’s wastewater system more efficient and environmentally friendly will continue regardless of the outcome of any court case, Council Chairwoman Alice Lee said in a news release Monday.

“Ensuring that Maui County has the best possible wastewater system — benefitting residents, taxpayers and the environment — should be a unifying issue,” said Lee, who holds the Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu residency area. “The council and mayor have invested tens of millions of dollars in capital improvement projects for the Department of Environmental Management. We need to move forward with calm and determined collaboration.”

Lee urged the council and administration to work together.

“It’s far more efficient and productive for the council and mayor — who are responsible to Maui County residents — to make decisions on how best to provide wastewater services, and all services for that matter, in a manner that is both sensitive to our fragile ecology and fiscally responsible,” she said.

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