HILO — Environmental officials are bracing for local repercussions from a U.S. appeals court ruling that Maui County violated the federal Clean Water Act in handling its treated wastewater.
The Feb. 1 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said sewer systems that discharge effluent into the ocean, even if it arrives there through groundwater, are required to have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.
“At bottom, this case is about preventing the county from doing indirectly that which it cannot do directly,” the court ruled.
The lawsuit was filed by the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation and the West Maui Preservation Society, which were represented by Earthjustice.
The Hawaii County Environmental Management Commission, meeting Wednesday, unanimously directed the county administration to create steps toward addressing the problem of sewer plant discharges. The issue will be taken up at its next meeting, scheduled for March 28 at the West Hawaii Civic Center.
“This ruling, in my estimation, will have a profound influence on wastewater discharges into the ground for the state and perhaps the United States,” said Commission Chairman Richard Bennett.
Commissioners urged the administration to be proactive.
“I will assume there are environmental organizations out there who will in fact litigate this further if the state does not react,” said Commissioner Jon Olson. “It’s not like nothing is going to happen. … Then we pick up the tab for the litigation and we pick up the tab for the repairs.”
It won’t be cheap. Costs to remediate all effluent on the island are estimated to top $500 million.
Olson said the county has exacerbated the problem by continuing to procrastinate.
“This isn’t new,” Olson said. “All the … politicians have done is make it more expensive by putting it off. … They’ve made it incredibly more costly.”
Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski said the island’s cesspools pose a far greater risk, accounting for about 15 million gallons of waste a day, compared to about 3 million gallons per day for the county’s seven wastewater treatment plants.
“Cesspools have a bigger impact on water quality than any of our sewer plants,” Kucharski said. “All of our facilities, whether NPDES permit or not, have discharge standards that must be met.”
The bottom line, Bennett said, isn’t just avoiding litigation, but protecting the island’s environment.
“Our oceans are degrading,” Bennett said. “The economic life of this county is inextricably connected to the health of the ocean.”