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Injection well case must be clarified once and for all

OUR COUNTY

Debate has been heated over whether to withdraw the Lahaina injection well case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, and there’s no disagreement that we all want what’s best for our environment and community — clean ocean water and reefs with healthy coral and marine life.

While it might be comforting to think that solving a complex problem can be done by changing just one piece in a puzzle, like turning off the tap to the injection wells, that’s just not reality. Addressing environmental concerns calls for comprehensive watershed management. Surface runoff is the biggest source of ocean pollution. Pollutants leaching from former sugar and pineapple fields, over-fertilization of commercial and residential landscaping, and hazardous waste spills on roadways and in drainage systems impact coastal waters.

Watershed management includes establishing firebreaks in strategic corridors to stop wildfires. This year brush fires stripped thousands of acres of soil-retaining brush, leaving coastal waters vulnerable to massive sediment runoff.

Fisheries management protects reef-cleaning fish from overfishing. Residents and visitors can malama our reefs by using eco-friendly sun block and swimming over fragile reefs, not walking on them.

The Lahaina facility treats incoming wastewater to R1 quality and disinfects it with ultraviolet light. Lahaina’s recycled water irrigates Kaanapali golf courses and landscaping, and recycled water use ranges from 14 to 44 percent seasonally.

Excess recycled water must go somewhere. Water discharged in injection wells travels underground through the best filter available, a half-mile of soil and lava rock. It emerges, highly diluted, in the ocean three months to four years later. Deep injection wells have been recognized as a best practice for decades, regulated by state and federal Safe Drinking Water Acts.

Maui County has been an environmental steward since the 1970s when visionary leaders abandoned direct sewage outfalls and reclaimed a valuable resource, irrigation water, from wastewater.

We want to recycle 100 percent of our wastewater, but that takes time and money and private property owners willing to take our water as paying customers.

This lawsuit has shaken the reuse community. Users may refuse to accept our recycled water due to concerns about liability or bureaucratic entanglement from new permit requirements. So, the end result of mandating another permit could be more excess recycled water, not less.

If allowed to stand, the current 9th Circuit ruling transfers regulation of our groundwater resources to the federal government. Hawaii should continue to manage its own water resources.

We should not risk the staggering costs of retrofitting treatment plants, jeopardize our recycled water program or expose our taxpayers or residents to costly legal battles over a new interpretation of regulations for wastewater disposal.

I have reviewed information, both for and against maintaining Maui’s case before the Supreme Court. I’ve met with experts, regulators and representatives from the state and other counties.

One letter came from the California Association of Sanitation Agencies, which represents 120 public wastewater agencies.

Adam Link, the association’s director of operations, wrote: “Nongovernmental organizations have sued the County where no state or federal agency has ever brought a similar enforcement action, and against a facility that has operated in compliance with state and federal permits for decades. They have done so in the hopes of dramatically expanding the scope of the Clean Water Act, hoping to achieve through litigation what would be more appropriately addressed through legislation.”

He agreed that Maui County is not trying to “gut” the Clean Water Act, stating: “It is the plaintiffs in this case who are trying to undo 30 years of Clean Water Act precedent and throw into chaos much of the good work being done by public wastewater agencies across the country whose job it is to protect public health and the environment.”

This issue must be clarified once and for all, not re-litigated endlessly at county taxpayers’ expense. Plaintiffs chose federal courts to file suit against Maui County in 2012. If their case has merit, they should welcome having it heard by the Supreme Court.

With the high court’s clarity on this issue, the county can get back to the business of managing our operations and resources with certainty under the law, for the benefit of all of Maui county’s residents and our precious environment.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column usually appears on the first and third Saturdays of the month.