Rob Parsons

Wastewater Injection Wells May Be Polluting Our Ocean

And the County wants to build more

by Rob Parsons

May 20 , 2010

On a warm Thursday afternoon, some two dozen people sat on metal folding chairs inside the hollow-tiled walls of the Waikapu Community Center, while fluorescent lights hummed and six ceiling fans spun lazily. Outside, a Field of Dreams-esque ball field awaited the arrival of after-school baseball practice, set to the panoramic backdrop of puffy clouds pillowing atop the green hills above Waikapu Valley.

Inside, County staff and citizens were assembled for the seventh monthly meeting of the Community Working Group on Wastewater Reuse, established after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a hearing last August to hear testimony regarding West Maui injection wells. The group was ostensibly organized to incorporate community input about the Tavares administration's stated goal of re-using 100 percent of treated wastewater, thereby eliminating the need to inject millions of gallons daily deep into the ground adjacent to coastal waters where the nitrogen-rich content has been linked to excessive algae blooms—and worse.

But some of the 21 volunteer members of the working group and members of the ad hoc DIRE Coalition (Don't Inject, Redirect) believe that Tavares and County officials are not doing enough to achieve those goals. Claims of withheld information and obfuscation are clouding the waters and slowing down the process.

Working Group Woes

County Department of Environmental Management Director Cheryl Okuma addressed the two-dozen attendees at the working group meeting in Waikapu. She summarized an April 27 Planning Commission meeting, when the panel voted to "uphold the Planning Director's decision" regarding permitting for two new injection wells to be constructed at Kahului. What she didn't say is that the decision was the outcome of a contested case filed by the DIRE Coalition and Save Kahului Harbor (Surfrider Foundation was not granted standing), challenging the exemption to Special Management Area review provided by then-Director Jeff Hunt, who has since resigned his position.

Okuma went on to state that an EPA letter sent in February does not mean the County is in violation of its permits, but is about doing tracer and nitrogen reduction studies to determine whether the County is in compliance. Finally, she addressed claims in a leaflet from Save Kahului Harbor about an increasing incidence of staph infections among swimmers and paddlers. Okuma said she spoke with a University of Hawaii staff member who told her staph cannot survive in a seawater environment.

Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Irene Bowie, a member of both the County working group and the DIRE Coalition, expressed her frustration after the meeting. "Why bother with the working group if there's no accurate information?" Bowie asked. "Back in December when we heard the 'Wastewater 101' presentation, we were told the eight wells in Kahului were all operational. They never told us they were pursuing an SMA exemption to construct two more."

"It is clearly new development in the SMA," insisted Bowie. "It was so wrong for Jeff Hunt to give the exemption."

Yet the Planning Commission, acting without a hearings officer for the contested case, voted 5-1 to uphold Director Hunt's exemption, meaning the construction of two new wells will move forward unless the action is challenged in court. The County maintains the new wells are necessary to replace two wells that are clogged and not working properly, with some 4-5 million gallons being injected daily from the Kahului Wastewater Reclamation Facility.

In February, The Maui News reported a rift between the DIRE Coalition and the Wastewater Community Working Group. Former EPA attorney Jeffrey Schwartz was among those calling for a complete re-use plan to be drafted by mid-September, in advance of the primary election. "They told us, 'no' to the subcommittees and 'no' to a plan," said Schwartz. "So what we're actually doing is only planning to plan, not coming up with a way to implement it."

The hurry-up request brought a rejoinder from the Mayor's spokesperson, Mahina Martin, who wrote, "It's disappointing that DIRE will politicize an important community issue and put their own impatience ahead of everyone else who volunteered to serve on the working group."

Schwartz further stated that the County has been negligent in providing alternative solutions to injection wells by now, and that 1,900 communities of varying sizes have been able to replace that method of wastewater disposal.

EPA Scrutiny

At the Lahaina meeting last August, Mayor Charmaine Tavares asked that the EPA consider a five-year extension to existing permits on four injection wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility rather than enforce more stringent conditions and requirements of new federal Class V permits for underground injection control.

Marine biologists and scientists reported studies indicating algae proliferation in the Kahekili Beach area, where seeps of injected wastewater percolate into the ocean. Surfers and divers reported incidences of nasty staph infections including those diagnosed as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

Meanwhile, the Mayor unveiled the idea of using the nutrient-rich wastewater as a resource and growing medium for algae in on-land holding tanks, to be harvested and processed into biofuel. "An algae energy project will move us closer to renewable energy sustainability, and at the same time reduce our need to place treated wastewater into injection wells," said Tavares, as reported in The Lahaina News. Some, however, criticized her proposal as a pipe dream at best and a stalling tactic from EPA actions at worst.

"Biodiesel from algae is 10 years off," wrote algae expert Robert Henrikson. "Let Exxon, BP and government consortiums invest $600 million in R&D to take the risks to commercialize this unproven technology. Maui County should not be in this business taking these kind of risks with taxpayers' money, just because algae biofuels have received a lot of publicity and some biofuel company needs a project. Maui has a waste treatment problem to clean up, and algae can address the problem, but not as part of a algae-to-biodiesel venture, with all its separate and additional risks."

In late January, the EPA sent a certified letter to Maui's Department of Environmental Management ordering, "Sampling and reporting under Section 308 of the Clean Water Act for the County of Maui's Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility [LWRF]." It called for the County to submit by April 26, 2010, an effluent and coastal seep sampling and analysis plan, to be followed by a one-year sampling of the wastewater effluent. The EPA cited previous studies that linked nutrient inputs from the LWRF wells to effects in coastal waters.

"EPA is investigating the possible discharge of pollutants to the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean along the Kaanapali Coast of Maui," wrote the agency. "In 2007 and 2008, the University of Hawaii [study by Meghan Dailer, Robin Knox, et al.] and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducted ambient tracer studies, which found substantial evidence that injected effluent from the LWRF is emerging from submarine springs into the coastal water around Kahekili Beach Park along the Kaanapali coastline. In order to assess the impact of the LWRF's effluent on the coastal waters and determine compliance with the [Clean Water] Act, EPA is requiring the County to sample the injected effluent, sample the coastal seeps, conduct an introduced tracer study, and submit reports on these activities and findings to EPA."

On March 15, Director Okuma responded to the certified letter, which she referred to as a "request," despite EPA's language: "The Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9 (EPA), hereby requires…." Okuma's letter asked under what authority EPA was "requesting" off-site data collection, sought clarification on the nature of tests and timelines (though both are provided in the EPA letter) and raised the issue of County financial restraints.

"The County asks that the deadline for submitting a revised sampling plan be deferred pending resolution of the related issues," Okuma wrote. At the Waikapu meeting she stated, "EPA will sit down at the table and discuss this with us." Working group members did not press for details.

"[The EPA letter] was an enforcement order, not a request," insisted Robin Knox, a water quality scientist with 25 years of experience, including regulation and permit writing. She noted that EPA has already taken significant steps to address groundwater pollutants, including a mandate to retire large-capacity cesspools.

Knox, also a DIRE Coalition member, was present when EPA officials met with Mayor Tavares last December—a meeting also attended by Earthjustice attorney Paul Atchitoff. Knox recalled the EPA's Region IX Water Division Director cutting short Tavares's spiel on a 10-20 year plan for algae-to-biofuel production by interjecting, "Pardon me Mayor, you have one year" to provide an adequate plan to comply with permit requirements.

"By fighting this, the County is wasting time and dollars that could be put to solving the problem," said Knox. She noted that the EPA has taken special interest in Maui, and that she was part of a group that took representatives snorkeling to show them where treated wastewater from injection wells is bubbling up near the shores.

"In the 11 years between 1997 and 2008, it is estimated that 51 billion gallons were injected, much of it with inadequate disinfection. That equates to four million pounds of nitrogen over that time period," Knox said.

Knox and others believe the wells should abide by the parameters of the Clean Water Act rather than the less restrictive Safe Drinking Water Act. She believes the data in studies she assisted with, as well as USGS reports, provide a rational nexus whereby a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit should be required.

Knox, who runs a water quality consulting business, also questioned Okuma's assertion that staph bacteria cannot exist in a saline environment. "Maui has one of the greatest incidences of staph per 100,000 people," she told the working group. The recycled freshwater dilutes the salinity and is more buoyant, which can bring pathogens to the surface where snorkelers, paddlers and surfers are, said Meghan Dailer, marine biologist and co-researcher with Knox.

The May issue of Environment Hawaii contains several articles on the Maui wastewater issues. A 1992 quote from the State Department of Health underscores the fact that this issue didn't bubble up overnight. "If the algae problem is attributed to the operation of the injection wells, a critical issue will focus over the compliance requirements of the Clean Water Act," reads the quote.

"The County is not in a favorable position with the EPA," warned Knox. "The County and ratepayers and taxpayers now have a huge liability."

Misplaced Funding

At the working group meeting, County-hired consultant Craig Lekven of Brown and Caldwell presented a comparative study of nationwide water-reuse programs, with examples from Tucson, Arizona, Westminister, Colorado, St. Petersberg and Altamonte Springs, Florida, Irvine, California, and a Cities and County alliance in Washington state. The study covered amount, type and driver for the water resuse, and funding sources.

Steve Parabicoli, County Water Recycling Program Coordinator, appeared unimpressed with the presentation. "Craig, we already did this study," Parabicoli said after the 45-minute presentation. "We just need to do more of what we're already doing."

Yet momentum toward wastewater reuse and away from dependence upon disposal via wells is hampered by one primary factor: cost. New transmission lines to areas where the water may be used for irrigation and agricultural purposes could be cost-prohibitive. And in some cases, nearby agricultural landowners have not been willing to accept the idea of receiving the irrigation water, notably in Kahului.

Federal stimulus money could be used for such projects, as in the 1970s when funds were disbursed to help municipalities, including Maui, construct modernized wastewater treatment facilities. But it's not clear that the Tavares administration is shovel-ready with any plans.

"Kauai was ready with a plan and got federal stimulus money for their wastewater treatment that generated construction jobs and cleaned up the ocean," wrote Karen Chun of the Kahului Harbor Coalition in a recent letter to The Maui News. "Maui missed the boat because we weren't ready with plans."

Chun was referring to a related issue, wherein Maalaea condo owners worked with former Councilmember Michelle Anderson and U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono to obtain a federal grant to phase out old cesspools and injection wells in that area, which has perhaps the most dramatic coral reef decline of anywhere on Maui over the past two decades.

Chun said the Department of Environmental Management is using another, "delaying tactic," calling for a $180,000 water quality study by a questionable consultant, rather than implementing a plan to protect the ocean from underground pollutants.

Chun also believes it is possible that the Feds may not reimburse Maui County for the water quality analysis, because "the grant is for a plan and the County has hired out for a study."

Though the County was apprised in late January by the EPA about the requirement for studies at the LWRF, no County budget request was submitted to conduct them. Late last month, Councilmembers Wayne Nishiki, Sol Kaho'ohalahala and Joe Pontanilla expressed their displeasure over the omission, and inserted last-minute budget provisions to address the need for studies and EPA compliance.

Maui resident John Seebart has testified at a number of hearings related to County injection wells. "I think we have a right to a higher standard by the people we employ in County government. It may well be that with the magnitude of the problem, and the fact that this is a Mayoral election year, the appointment of the WWG was a panicked attempt to slide by and postpone this for another year, or longer, and the soldiers have their marching orders," he wrote.
"We may not have the money," Seebart continued, "but the solutions are not rocket science. The County needs to act, or pay the consequences."

Bowie concurred. "We've been stuck in a paradigm of what is best for Wastewater Division, which used to be a pipeline to the ocean," Bowie said. "We're really looking for a willingness to move forward, and do so swiftly, not just deny that problems exist."

What is an injection well?

An injection well is a long, narrow pipe placed vertically in the ground. Partially treated wastewater is injected into the pipe. The wastewater is then absorbed into the soil and treatment is theoretically completed before it reaches a water source like the ocean.

There are 18 County-operated injection wells on Maui: eight in Kahului, four in Lahaina, three in Kihei and three on Molokai. Depending on the season, about 80 percent of wastewater is currently processed through injection wells.

Source: County of Mau