Maui County and Hawaii Wildlife Fund face off over wastewater in the Supreme Court

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WASHINTON (Gray DC) -- Hawaii Wildlife Fund and the County of Maui went head-to-head in the nation’s high court Wednesday. The environmental case surrounding West Maui wastewater treatment and its impact on the ocean is getting national attention after failing to finish the case in-state.

Oral arguments for Maui County, HI v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund were heard in the Supreme Court Wednesday. (Source: Gray DC)

“If you know where millions of gallons of treated sewage are coming from and if they’re damaging the ocean, you want to do something about it,” said David Henkin, the attorney for Earthjustice who made Hawaii Wildlife’s case in front of the nine justices.

Henkin thinks the justices asked the right questions surrounding the county disposing waste into wells, which eventually seeps into the ocean and damages ocean life. He says the Clean Water Act of 1972 requires the county get proper permitting for this practice.

“(The justices) were focusing on the right issues which is whether a polluter can evade the Clean Water Act merely by using groundwater to be a sewer to convey pollution,” said Henkin.

The county maintains the way the Clean Water Act is written relieves them of strict federal permitting because they are not dumping waste directly into the ocean. Justice Stephen Breyer asked the county how dumping into wells is not equivalent to direct pollution.

“It’s no different than if they were pumping it into the ocean,” said Henkin.

Justices pressed Henkin on the potential scope of the federal oversight Hawaii Wildlife is looking for.

“It’s too broad it could be construed to cover a huge number of circumstances,” said Jesse Richardson, counsel to the National Ground Water Association and the Water Systems Council who wrote a brief on behalf of Maui County.

Richardson thinks the justices sufficiently addressed the harm broad regulation could do. He thinks federal supervision of wastewater going into the ground could end up inflicting serious costs on individual homeowners.

“It could very well mean that the cost of your home, the cost of everything that you do is going to go up,” said Richardson.

Maui Mayor Mike Victorino attended arguments but left immediately after. His office rejected requests for an interview.

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