As wastewater soils ocean, Māʻalaea injection wells fuel debate over who’s liable
April 20, 2022, 6:00 AM HST
* Updated April 20, 12:42 PM
Debate over public versus private responsibility when it comes to Maui’s precious natural resources is roiling Māʻalaea’s coastline.
At issue is whether the government should help fix a messy situation: Wastewater is leaking from archaic Māʻalaea condominiums injection wells, damaging ocean reef and other natural habitats.
Or in longtime Māʻalaea homeowner Peter Cannon’s words: “We’re swimming in doo-doo soup; we’re fishing in doo-doo soup.”
Māʻalaea Small Boat Harbor and Māʻalaea Beach are currently on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of “impaired waterbodies,” which says the area exceeds “acceptable levels” of bacteria and other pollutants.
Environmental groups, condo owners and some county leaders say the county is responsible for rectifying the injection well issue because it forced owners to build them through zoning changes decades ago.
However, other county officials said the state — not the county — is responsible for wastewater systems back then. They argue that failings of a privately-owned system should not be the burden of the county taxpayer. Bailing out the developments could even open the county to legal issues, a county lawyer said.
A plan for the county to build a new $9.5 million wastewater system to help the condos and the environment did not gain enough votes Monday night to move forward. Instead, the proposal will be sent to committee so details can be ironed out.
“It’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation,” Council Member Mike Molina said ahead of the vote. “The more delays we have, the more degradation of our reefs and our ecosystems.”
“I just hate not doing nothing,” he added. “You continue to hear about what’s going on out there. I think at some point county government needs to step in.”
Council Member Tamara Paltin also said the county is stuck in a tough spot.
“My understanding is that we are kind of in a catch-22: We would need to own the system for it to be a county project; but if we own the system, we would open ourselves up to the liability,” she said.
Council Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez said that the proposal needs to be fleshed out in committee, especially because county department heads said the project in its current form wouldn’t qualify for state funding.
Council Members Paltin, Rawlins-Fernandez, Alice Lee and Yuki Lei Sugimura voted to send the project to committee; Molina, Kelly King, Gabe Johnson and Shane Sinenci voted to add the project to the budget; and Tasha Kama was absent.
Prioritized by King, the project would seek a state loan to build the Māʻalaea Wastewater Reclamation System, which would replace 24 outdated injection wells with new, cleaner wastewater technology. Reclaimed water would go back to the land, potentially used for landscaping and agriculture. Even neighboring landowner Mahi Pono is willing to provide land for the system at a cost of $1 per year for the next 99 years, a Maui Nui Marine Resource Council news release said.
King is known for her advocacy work against the controversial Lahaina injection wells, which gained national attention after it was proven to leak into nearby coastal waters.
Unlike Maui County’s owned and operated Lahaina injection wells, though, the Māʻalaea injection wells are privately owned, the county administration has echoed.
County Deputy Corporation Counsel Richelle Thomson during Monday night’s budget meeting said the state — not the county — would have had jurisdiction over the injection wells.
“In terms of the original permitting, wastewater treatment systems are permitted by the state Department of Health,” she said. “The county would not have had anything to do with permitting those original wastewater treatment systems, the private systems.”
She cautioned council members about jumping in to rectify the situation.
“Knowing that these systems are in very, very poor shape to say the least, it’s been mentioned that they’re leaking and effluent is reaching the ocean,” she said. “It would mean the systems are currently in violation of the law. So one of the things that the county, we would strongly advise against, is having any kind of ownership interest or management interest in these current systems. They all need to be closed and capped effectively.”
Thomson added that it’s common for private groups to seek government help with aging or outdated infrastructure.
“Moving forward, operating a regional treatment system that is designed to benefit a dozen or so private condominium complexes gives you a fairly small user base for such a large infrastructure project,” she said.
To say that the system benefits a small number of people riled Cannon, who has been closely involved in the project.
He called the comments “asinine” and said the “entire county” depends on Māʻalaea, which generates more than $7 million annually for the county in taxes.
“Māʻalaea Bay is an economic engine for all of Maui,” he said. “What do tourists do when they come here? They come here for the beauty. They come here to recreate in Māʻalaea Bay, one of the biggest attractions. And the reef is dead.”
When asked about the demographics of the community, he said the units aren’t “rich man’s abodes.”
“Very common people live here,” Cannon said.
Of the 564 units, 346 are used for transient accommodations in the form of short-term rentals, according to Cannon.
Scores of homeowners submitted written testimony in support of the project over recent days.
“This is a proactive public-private community effort,” Lynn Britton of Māʻalaea Village Association said in a news release. “When MVA surveyed our community, we found overwhelming support for resolving Māʻalaea’s wastewater issues. At last, here is a way to address the problem in a timely, proactive way — if we can get the funding.”
Also, Maui Nui Marine Resource Council backs the project, calling it part of a “holistic approach by the community to address the degrading corals and pollution in Māʻalaea Bay.”
Used throughout the nation, injection wells shoot wastewater deep underground. In Hawai’i, the systems are regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health.
Aside from privately-owned and operated injection wells in the county, Maui County owns and operates 18 wells: Eight in Kahului, four in Lahaina, three in Kihei and three on Molokai.
When it comes to Māʻalaea’s injection wells, the county administration on its website says they’re shallow compared to the county’s wells and don’t undergo the same level of treatment that the government’s treatment facilities are subject to.
Installed during the ‘70s when the condominium buildings were constructed in Māʻalaea, the injection wells today are considered outdated wastewater systems. They are used by 564 condo units, along with homes and businesses in the area, for the disposal of an estimated 125,000 gallons of effluent daily, the Maui Nui release said.
“Those who built the condos in Māʻalaea were required by Maui County to build on-site wastewater plant that used 1970s injection well technology that processed the effluent and pumped it into the freshwater table,” King said. “This is a situation that was created by the county and has been condoned by the county all these years.”