A federal judge ruled Friday that Maui County's use of injection wells at its Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility violates the federal Clean Water Act.
After a hearing set for March 17 in U.S. District Court in Honolulu, civil penalties will be imposed for the county violations, according to attorneys for four nonprofit groups and Earthjustice, which sued the county over wastewater violations in April 2012.
"It's time for the county to stop dragging its feet and fix this problem," said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin.
He said the maximum penalties in the case "already exceed $100 million, and the meter is ticking at a rate of over $100,000 per day."
In the ruling, Judge Susan Oki Mollway cited a 2011 University of Hawaii tracer dye study showing that 64 percent of treated wastewater injected into two of four wells at the Lahaina facility flowed through groundwater and reached the ocean at Kahekili Beach Park.
Because the two wells received more than 80 percent of the 4 million gallons of sewage a day taken into the facility, "it appears that over 50 percent of the wastewater discharged at the LWRF emerges into the ocean," the ruling said.
It also said that "the discharge into the aquifer significantly affects the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the receiving waters."
Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said Monday that "although we respect the court's decision, we are still reviewing the court's ruling and evaluating our options."
The county had asked for a delay or dismissal, saying it had applied for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for the four Lahaina injection wells. The court denied the county request.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Surfrider Foundation, West Maui Preservation Association and Sierra Club-Maui Group, followed years of meetings with county officials as part of efforts to resolve the issue out of court, according to the groups.
"It's frustrating that they refused to listen to us, forcing us to go to court, but we are happy the judge understands the gravity of the situation," said Lucienne de Naie, conservation chairwoman for Sierra Club Maui.
The court found that wastewater-laden groundwater entering the ocean at Kahekili Beach Park has "exceptionally elevated" levels of nitrogen and phosphorous. The addition of nutrients from the wastewater facility "can accelerate the growth of fleshy seaweed and algae, which can compete with, outgrow and kill coral," according to the ruling.
The county discharges into the ocean were found to be "substantially more acidic than the rest of the ocean's nearshore water," lower in salinity and dissolved oxygen and "substantially elevated" in temperature, the ruling said.
"With elevated nutrients, acidity and temperature, combined with its low salinity and oxygen, the county's wastewater is, sadly, a perfect recipe for destroying Kahekili's coral reefs," said Hannah Bernard of Hawaii Wildlife Fund. "The dramatic decline of this once pristine marine environment is just heartbreaking. The county needs to take immediate steps to save what's left."
In addition to destroying coral, chemicals in the wastewater threaten residents and tourists swimming and surfing at the beach, said Angela Howe of Surfrider Foundation.
"With West Maui in a near permanent drought, the county should be reusing the millions of gallons of wastewater from the Lahaina facility to meet the needs of golf courses, resorts and other developments, not dumping it onto our reefs," said Lance Collins of the West Maui Preservation Association.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.