Maui Clean Water Case Heads to US Supreme Court This Week

November 4, 2019, 6:23 AM HST · Updated November 4, 6:23 AM
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The US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this week in the clean water case involving Maui County’s injection wells.

The court will decide whether the Clean Water Act regulates pollution discharges that “indirectly” enter protected waters.

The environmental lawfirm, Earthjustice, says the outcome could imperil clean water across the nation. The Mayor last month rejected the group’s request to withdraw the county’s appeal saying without clarification from the high court, the county would be “vulnerable to more lawsuits, to uncertain regulatory requirements and staggering costs.”

The lawsuit was filed by the Hawaii Wildlife Fund against Maui County over the discharge of treated sewage into the ocean via groundwater beneath the facility saying it has devastated a formerly pristine reef.

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Earthjustice says the County of Maui argues it does not need Clean Water Act permits for such an action because it is not discharging directly into waters protected by the Clean Water Act. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the County’s argument and concluded that the County of Maui is violating the Clean Water Act.

“We hope that the letter and intent of the Clean Water Act are upheld by the US Supreme Court in our case, and that they rule in our favor, as the two previous courts have done, and continue to protect the nation’s lakes, rivers and nearshore waters,” said Hannah Bernard, Executive Director and co-founder of Hawai’i Wildlife Fund. “After 12 years of fruitless negotiations and filing of this lawsuit, we are dismayed that our case was elevated to this level by Maui County’s mayor, since it defies the will of the people of Maui and the Maui County Council to protect our reefs.”

Last month, Mayor Victorino issued a statement backing his stand to have the case reviewed by the high court saying:

“To allow this to go unanswered leaves us vulnerable to more lawsuits, to uncertain regulatory requirements and staggering costs – all for what would be a negligible environmental benefit. The legal exposure is immense, not only for the County but for private property owners as well. It goes far beyond injection wells. The Ninth Circuit’s decision means that many County facilities – including Parks, Public Works, Environmental Management are likely in violation of the federal law as it’s interpreted by this court. Penalties can be imposed of nearly $55,000 per day per source. The effect on private property values, and the associated property taxes which fund the majority of County operations, cannot be ignored.”

Oral arguments start on Wednesday morning.

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