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Maui County, environmental groups settle lawsuit over wastewater at Lahaina facility


HONOLULU — Maui County has reached a settlement with environmental groups over penalties for releasing partially treated wastewater into injection wells close to Lahaina's coast.

The settlement filed in federal court in Honolulu on Thursday requires Maui County to come up with safer ways to dispose of wastewater at its Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility, said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin.

Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in 2012 on behalf of Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club and other organizations concerned about the water's high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous triggering invasive algae outbreaks that are killing coral off Kahekili Beach Park.

Under the settlement, Maui would pay a $100,000 penalty and invest $2.5 million on projects to divert and reuse treated wastewater for golf courses, commercial landscaping and other irrigation needs in West Maui, Henkin said. The county must also get a Clean Water Act permit for its injection wells.

The county said in a statement that the $2.5 million in projects will be implemented only if it is unsuccessful in an appeal of previous rulings that the county violated the Clean Water Act.

The previous federal court rulings that found that discharges from all four Lahaina injection wells — without the required permit to discharge pollutants — violate the federal Clean Water Act.

"The court's rulings have far-reaching implications, not only for Maui County, but for the state and other local governments, which is why the county must appeal this decision," Mayor Alan Arakawa said in the statement. "The ruling leaves municipalities in regulatory limbo."

Henkin said he hopes the county will think twice before appealing. "The residents of Maui will be far better served if, instead of spending limited tax dollars on mainland lawyers, the county focuses instead on solving the Lahaina facility's pollution problems and invests in projects to divert treated wastewater from the injection wells, using that water to meet West Maui's chronic water shortages," he said.

The Lahaina facility disposes of 3 million to 5 million gallons of treated wastewater daily through four injection wells that send fluid deep underground. The facility processes sewage from a collection system serving about 40,000 people.

A 2012 University of Hawaii study confirmed liquid flows through wells into the ocean via underwater springs close to shore.

The wastewater has been treated to a level just below drinking water, so the county could make it available for watering golf courses and commercial landscaping. The county reuses about one-third of the wastewater and pumps the rest into the wells.

"The devastation to this once pristine coral reef ecosystem is tragic," Hannah Bernard of Hawaii Wildlife Fund said in a statement. "The county should embrace its role as steward of Maui's natural resources and treat this settlement as a starting point to do all it can to save what's left of this fragile reef, including eventually shutting down the wells for good."

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