A New University of Hawaii Report Says Treated Sewage Injected Into Ground At Lahaina Wastewater Facility Is Making Its Way To Kahekili Beach

Locals call it Airport Beach, but its true Hawaiian name is Kahekili Beach, which honors the the last king of Maui. Located just north of Black Rock on the Westside, Kahekili Beach is a gorgeous stretch of white sand that’s popular with sunbathers, swimmers, snorkelers and divers.

The beach would exemplify everything natural and wonderful about Maui’s shoreline, except for one small problem: a new University of Hawaii study says submarine springs just offshore from the beach are bringing in sewage that’s been injected into the ground at the nearby Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility (LRWF), which is run by the County of Maui.

“In sum, our results conclusively demonstrate that a hydrogeologic connection exists between LWRF Injection Wells 3 and 4 and the nearby coastal waters of West Maui,” states the giant 502-page Lahaina Groundwater Tracer Study report, which was released in late July. “Eighty-four days following injection, FLT [Fluorescein] tracer dye introduced to these wells began to emerge from very nearshore seafloor along North Kaanapali Beach, approximately 0.85 km (0.5 miles) to the southwest of the LWRF.”

For the last two decades, various researchers have been studying the injections from the Lahaina facility, trying to discover if material was in fact getting into the delicate near-shore environment. The new UH report has a strong conclusion–one that should give pause to everyone who dives into the waters at Kahekili Beach.

What’s more, though the wastewater plant injects “treated effluent” into the ground and not untreated sewage, the UH report discovered tangible changes in the ocean near the submarine springs: “Waters discharging the fluorescein dye from the submarine springs are warm and brackish, and have a temperature >28ºC, and an average salinity of 4.5 and a pH of 7.5.”

Of course, none of this is news to the West Maui Preservation Association (WMPA). For about a decade now, the group of Westside residents has been speaking out about both the rampant construction throughout that part of Maui and the possibility that material from the wastewater plant was making its way to the ocean (in our Nov. 15, 2007 issue, I wrote a story titled “Change the Channel!” about WMPA’s research into possible bacteriological contamination in the nearby Honokowai Channel). In April 2012, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of WMPA, Surfrider Foundation, the Sierra Club and Hawaii Wildlife Fund alleging that pollution was making its way from the wastewater treatment plant to Kahekili Beach.

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For more information about the context and importance of the recent UH tracer study, I spoke with Lance Collins, the WMPA spokesperson and attorney.

MAUITIME: How long has your organization been speaking out against the Lahaina wastewater facility?

LANCE COLLINS: Since it was formed [in 2003]. We’ve sent stuff to the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and DOH [Department of Health]. Nothing happened with DOH but the EPA wanted to hear what the public had to say. But that wasn’t until a couple years later.

MT: What’s the significance of the UH study?

COLLINS: WMPA has always said that it doesn’t take a biologist to see that the treatment plant has a negative impact on the near-shore waters. This [study] shows that conclusively. The water has to go somewhere. It’s not like there’s a big black hole under the ground. Would a tourist snorkel there knowing that 60 percent of the injection from the treatment plant is bubbling up there? The water they’re shooting into the ground is coming up. We have to figure out how best to eliminate the problems that’s causing.

MT: Sixty percent seems high. Did the results surprise you?

COLLINS: It did, though the exact amount is 65 percent. I thought [the result] was low. In my mind it was 100 percent, it’s at least consistent with my experience. In 10 to 15 feet of water, you can see these submarine springs. The water is warmer there. You don’t need special equipment to see these springs.

MT: Why has the issue regarding the treatment plant injections gone on so long?

COLLINS: I think from the state’s perspective, I think it’s better for them to do something instead of nothing. Injection is better than direct discharge into the ocean–except in this case where it’s direct discharge into the ocean. Now there’s science to back up the connection between injection and the submarine springs in the Kahekili shoreline area. Before this study, they said there was no scientific evidence of sewage coming up. And remember that there are injection wells in Kahului and Kihei as well.

MT: Where do you go from here?

COLLINS: WMPA and Earthjustice are in settlement discussions with the County in the lawsuit. There aren’t really any details on that. We’re hopeful, and if not we’ll press ahead and get a judgment.

MT: How serious would that judgment be for the County of Maui?

COLLINS: For the County, a violation of the Clean Water Act is pretty serious. The money goes to the federal government. It would be very sad if the County won’t face facts and has to give a fat check to the federal government that will never come back to the community.

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When UH released the study in late July, and Earthjustice distributed it to media across Maui, the County of Maui’s press office declined to comment. But what the various media outlets (including this one) missed when they first reported on the UH study was that one county official had commented on the results in writing.

Buried at the end of the 502-page report is a copy of a four-page letter dated June 10, 2013 from Scott Rollins of the county’s Wastewater Reclamation Division to UH Geology Professor Craig Glenn, the study’s principal author (the UH researchers’ response to Rollins is also included at the end of the report). In his letter, Rollins makes dozens of comments and critiques about the study, including his belief that the report is just too damned long.

“This is one of the longest and most detailed executive summaries we have ever seen,” Rollins wrote. “Seems like it might be a good idea to move the report index ahead of it so we can find things like the acronym table, and understand the layout of the entire 450+ page report.”

In response, Glenn dryly noted, “Good idea. We did that.” But Collins, who admitted that he hadn’t known about the county’s letter until asked about it for this story, couldn’t get over Rollins’ critique. “I find it amusing that the County is trying to tell scientists how to typeset their report,” he said.

For the most part though, Rollins disputed the certainty that sewage from the Lahaina plant is in fact making its way to the nearshore waters–and repeatedly asked researchers to water down their conclusions by using terms like “possible cause” instead of “primary cause” when discussing the dye tracer results.

“Where is the physical proof that this is true?” Rollins asked at one point. “Isn’t this the best guess cause for the data collected and the models that were developed[?]”

But the report shows Glenn and his fellow researchers weren’t buying Rollins’ skepticism. “We strongly dispute the contention that no evidence was provided to support our conclusion,” they noted in response to Rollins’ question.

Indeed, the EPA seemed to back them up (though that agency made many technical comments and criticisms on the report as well). “The Lahaina Groundwater Tracer Study Draft Final Report (June 2013) (the ‘report’) is informative and interesting to read,” noted that agency in a comment letter on the report dated June 10, 2013. “The report provides important and useful information on the fate of effluent from injection wells and on Submarine Groundwater Discharge (SGD) in West Maui. We now know that Lahaina’s effluent discharges 3-25 m from shore in two fairly discrete areas off the Marriott and that it takes 3 months to under a year for most of the plume to reach the ocean. This is very different from the historical thinking that wells discharged far off shore in deep water over large areas.”

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