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Protect reefs from sewage discharges

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Thriving near-shore coral reef ecosystems are essential to shoreline protection, local fisheries and, of course, Hawaii’s tourism industry. In the islands, it’s our responsibility to safeguard reef from land-based sources of pollution and fend off coastal acidification.

To that end, it’s time for Maui County to focus on stepping up its defense against an ongoing environmental threat — rather than continuing to side-step the matter in court.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that the county’s Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility has been violating the U.S. Clean Water Act (CWA) since facility operations got underway in the early 1980s. The unanimous opinion issued by a three- judge panel upholds a 2014 ruling, and should serve as a decisive victory for community groups intent on shielding waters off West Maui’s popular Kahekili Beach Park from reef damage, such as that caused by outbreaks of invasive algae.

Almost six years have passed since four groups — Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation and West Maui Preservation Association — filed suit under the CWA to stop the county from discharging wastewater from the treatment plant into the ocean without a permit. The county’s assertion that a permit is unneeded because pollutants are not directly discharged into near-shore waters is not holding up to valid reasoning.

The appellate court’s opinion concluded: “At bottom, this case is about preventing the county from doing indirectly that which it cannot do directly.” Under federal law, a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit is needed to dispose of the wastewater in ocean waters.

Situated between Kaanapali and Kapalua, the Lahaina facility handles 4 million to 6 million gallons of sewage per day, with much of the treated sewage disposed of in injection wells — each a vertical pipe that sends fluid deep underground into porous rock or a shallow soil layer.

In 2011, amid growing concerns about proliferating algae blooms that smother reefs and other degradation, University of Hawaii scientists initiated a tracer-dye study that conclusively linked treatment plant discharge with tainted near-shore waters. Further, in November, a U.S. Geological Survey reported that discharge from injection wells — positioned about a half-mile from the shoreline — has been drastically undermining the area for years.

It’s time for the county to stop its apparent skirting of the law. In an earlier settlement, the county agreed to pay a $100,000 fine and spend $2.5 million for infrastructure tailored for reuse of the wastewater if the courts upheld the case’s 2014 U.S. District Court ruling.

The county’s attorneys maintain that other sources, such as storm- water and agriculture-related runoff, are contributing to impaired coastal waters. That’s probable. But given the evidence tying wastewater to the problem, Maui County should resolve to halt the indirect flow of the pollutants into near-shore waters before the solution gets more expensive — or worse, reef damage is deemed beyond repair.

For price-tag perspective, consider Honolulu County’s $3.5 billion effort to correct alleged deficiencies in the city’s sewage and wastewater treatment systems. Required by a 2010 consent decree reached by the city in tandem with the state Department of Health, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and three environmental groups, upgrades include sewer construction projects now in the works.

In the lineup is a required refit at two sewage plants — Honouliuli and Sand Island — to meet secondary-treatment standards required by the Clean Water Act. The decree settled years of litigation, and helps secure a healthier future for our shorelines, which had been threatened by city sewer overflows reaching ocean waters.

For the sake of preserving a vibrant reef — and for taxpayer relief — it’s time for Maui County to prioritize reuse fixes and other improvements rather than pushing on with a legal fight.

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