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Lahaina’s wastewater injection wells are a problem

VIEWPOINT

I am aghast at the misinformation being put forward regarding the Lahaina wastewater injection wells. As a retired EPA scientist, I like facts and referencing peer-reviewed published scientific papers. Here are the facts as I know them:

Wastewater from the injection wells moves through groundwater, enters the ocean through underwater springs and harms corals in the waters fronting the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort. Maui County says this is not a problem, but the prestigious scientific journal “Nature” recently reported that corals located near wastewater springs at Kaanapali have holes in their carbonate skeletons that are caused by boring marine organisms. This occurs in high-nutrient waters and is called bioerosion.

These holes weaken the corals, causing them to break and collapse in strong waves when tangled in debris or when stepped on by swimmers. The same study found that other corals at Kaanapali that are farther from the wastewater springs are healthy with strong, solid skeletons. Maui needs strong coral skeletons, as they help protect shorelines by breaking waves before they crash upon our vulnerable shores.

Why does a recent lawsuit assert that Lahaina’s injection wells need an NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) wastewater permit under the Clean Water Act? A study by a team of University of Hawaii scientists found that by adding dye into two of the four Lahaina injection wells, the wastewater from those wells emerges from the seabed as springs in shallow coastal water at Kaanapali. The water flowing from the springs averages 62 to 96 percent wastewater, and it is harming corals.

Why is the treated wastewater harmful? The water from wastewater springs is high in nitrogen and phosphorus (like fertilizer), warmer and more acidic than seawater and lacks oxygen. Other contaminants, including a human antibiotic and anticonvulsant, flame retardants and pesticides, were found by a U.S. Geological Survey study in the wastewater springs in the shallows at Kaanapali where fish and corals live.

These facts demonstrate the need for an NPDES wastewater permit under the Clean Water Act. The existing Safe Drinking Water Act permits were written before recent studies proved that injection wells harm marine life at Kaanapali. The existing permits allow pollutant concentrations that are harmful to marine life. An NPDES permit would limit pollutants to stricter levels that protect marine life.

The Department of Health has assured Maui officials that there are no plans to expand NPDES coverage to cesspools and septic systems, despite the rumors designed to intimidate Maui residents.

Maui County has aligned with the dirtiest industries eager to pollute the nation’s streams and oceans in taking this local issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. The county should work with its citizens to find an amicable local settlement that expands wastewater reuse for irrigation.

* Wendy Wiltse is currently president of Oahu Waterkeeper, a nonprofit environmental organization working for “fishable, swimmable water.” She holds a doctorate in marine ecology. Wiltse retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after 24 years of work in Hawaii on watershed, water quality, wetland and coral reef issues.