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Maui council reverses stance, now backs Māʻalaea plan to fix sewage leaking in ocean

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Māʻalaea Harbor/Bay. File photo courtesy DLNR.

Hours before Earth Day, Maui County Council reversed its decision on a project that would halt sewage from seeping into Māʻalaea Bay and Harbor.  

“It was perfect timing, too: The day before Earth Day we got this put back into the budget,” Council Member Kelly King, who is spearheading the Māʻalaea project, told Maui Now today. 

Three council members in committee Thursday changed their votes for unanimous support of a new $9.5 million county-owned wastewater system in Māʻalaea, which would rectify what some have called an environmental crisis: Archaic, privately-owned injection wells tied to area condos have been leaking wastewater into the area, damaging reef and other nearby ecosystems. The council cast a split vote on Tuesday due to legal and financial concerns and sent the item to committee.

Council Member Tamara Paltin, who originally voted against funding project in the upcoming fiscal year, said she discussed the situation with lawyers and others to learn that the project can get funding and liability won’t be an issue. After she backed the project Thursday, council Chairwoman Alice Lee and Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez also changed their votes.  

Once the council’s budget is approved, however, the mayor has the authority to veto items. Mayor Michael Victorino this afternoon said he doesn’t support the Māʻalaea project funding decision for multiple reasons.

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Victorino said the state’s Clean Water Revolving Fund isn’t possible because use is restricted to county-owned systems. 

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“But even if such a loan was possible, Maui County would have to repay it with funds collected from residents who have paid into the county’s wastewater service for years. How is that fair to ratepayers? Plus, such a decision would set a precedent for other privately-owned systems to transfer liabilities of their own aging systems to the people of Maui County,” he said in a statement to Maui Now. 

Sina Pruder, chief of the state’s Wastewater Branch, gave guidelines that would make the project eligible for the funding.  

“If the entire infrastructure is owned and operated by the County, the funding would be eligible for CWSRF (Clean Water State Revolving Fund) funding,” Pruder wrote to King, who is planning a county-owned system. “Development of the plans would also be eligible for funding too.” 

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Victorino said another reason he doesn’t back the project is because the condos opposed affordable homes in the area, which would’ve created a new sewer system.

More than a decade ago, Spencer Homes proposed to build a new wastewater system in Māʻalaea as part of its planned affordable housing project, ʻOhana Kai Village, intended for the mauka area.  

“Spencer Homes offered to connect the Māʻalaea Community Association system to its planned new system at no cost,” he said. “The Māʻalaea Community Association actively opposed the project, saying they preferred permanent protection of open space. Yet, today they ask the county to take on liability for their wastewater system? Choices have consequences.” 

Mayor said the only way the County of Maui can accept ownership of this or any other private wastewater system is if owners bring the project up to county and state standards prior to transfer. 

On the other end, US Rep. Kai Kahele today hailed the council’s decision to support the funding of a new public wastewater treatment facility. 

“This is a huge step for improving the environment of Māʻalaea Bay and providing a critical service for one of our local communities,” he said in a statement. “And importantly, this serves as an example of how we can work across county, state, and federal government to deliver for Hawai’i, and to leverage the historic resources delivered in the recently passed federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.” 

Māʻalaea Small Boat Harbor and Māʻalaea Beach are currently on the US 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. 

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 earlier today echoed that the county has a responsibility for wastewater, especially if it is causing a major body of water to be impaired. Plus, the county’s change in zoning decades ago forced condos to have their own treatment system that used injection wells. 

“That mandate was not given by the state,” she said. “That happened because of county action.” 

Kehaulani Cerizo
Kehaulani Cerizo was born and raised on Maui and worked for nearly 15 years as a news reporter, copy editor and features editor at daily newspapers. She earned awards at The Maui News in Wailuku and at Today’s Local News in San Diego.
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