HONOKOWAI - Four Hawaii community groups recently filed suit under the national Clean Water Act, asking the federal district court to direct Maui County to secure a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit that would set limits on the pollutants that can be discharged from injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility.
Earthjustice filed the complaint last month on behalf of Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Surfrider Foundation, West Maui Preservation Association and Sierra Club-Maui Group.
The action follows years of unsuccessful efforts to resolve the issue out of court, the groups reported.
County Communications Director Rod Antone said the administration cannot comment on pending legal issues.
Each day, millions of gallons of treated wastewater are sent into the ground through injection wells at the Honokowai facility.
The groups contend that the wastewater contains pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorous, bacteria and other pathogens in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
They believe the treated wastewater surfaces in the ocean makai of the plant, killing the coral reef and triggering outbreaks of invasive algae.
"We notified Maui County last June that its Lahaina facility was damaging the reef and operating illegally in hope that the county would voluntarily seek the required permit for wastewater discharges from the injection wells," said Earthjustice attorney Caroline Ishida.
"Unfortunately, it apparently takes an enforcement action to get the county to do anything, which is why we're now seeking relief from the court."
Maui County has been discharging partially treated sewage into injection wells at the West Side plant for 30 years. Currently, three to five million gallons are sent down the wells each day.
In August 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it determined that the wastewater discharged into the underground injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility contains levels of coliform bacteria that could exceed federal standards protecting the drinking water aquifer.
EPA issued a compliance order requiring Maui County to monitor its injected effluent, improve disinfection of the treated wastewater within 30 days and install and operate an approved non-chlorine disinfection system by Dec. 31, 2013.
After December 2013, the injected wastewater may not exceed the R-1 level for fecal coliform. (R1 is the highest quality of reclaimed water specified in Hawaii State Regulations.)
Dean Higuchi, EPA's Hawaii-Pacific press officer, said a tracer study at the plant is underway, and "the county is meeting the requirements of complying with our consent order for disinfection at the Lahaina facility."
"While disinfection is a step in the right direction, it won't remove nitrogen and phosphorous from the wastewater, so it won't get rid of the harmful algae growth at Kahekili (Beach)," said Hannah Bernard of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund.
"Algae smother the coral and upset the ecosystem, because fish and other marine animals depend on the reef for food and need the crevices within the reef for shelter."
According to the community groups, researchers from the University of Hawaii (U.H.) analyzed the specific type of nitrogen found in the algae growing in the waters offshore of Kahekili Beach and were able to positively identify it as the same type of nitrogen being pumped into the injection wells.
The ongoing tracer dye study conducted by EPA and U.H. scientists has further confirmed the connection between the wells and the ocean, the groups contend, and that pollutants injected into the wells make their way into the nearshore waters of Kahekili Beach Park via freshwater seeps.
"Algae growth and infectious diseases aren't the only problems the injection wells cause," explained Tim Lara, chair of Surfrider Foundation-Maui Chapter.
"Studies have shown that chemicals like pharmaceuticals and fire retardants also travel from the injection wells into nearshore waters, posing additional threats to the delicate ecosystem and to local residents and tourists swimming and surfing at Kahekili Beach."
Lance D. Collins of the West Maui Preservation Association commented, "The Lahaina wastewater facility must cease using the public nearshore waters to dispose of its waste. In the face of the scientific evidence, continuing to pretend the injected effluent magically disappears is no longer acceptable."
Chris Taylor of Sierra Club-Maui Group added, "The county should be treating and reusing the millions of gallons of wastewater for irrigation at resorts, golf courses and other areas of West Maui, not dumping it onto the reef. Reusing the water would not only save the reef but also address West Maui's increasingly severe water shortages."