Reports Show Maui County Sewage Plants Are Polluting Waters at Popular Beaches

posted in: May 2010 | 0
Say you’re in West Maui and decide to take a dip at Kahekili Park, just north of the Ka`anapali resort area. The water sparkles at the foot of the wide beach. It looks inviting. But, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report, you’ll be swimming in a lot more than seawater.
There are the drugs: among them, carbamazepine, sulfamethoxazole, diphenhydramine, and caffeine (an anticonvulsant, an antibiotic, an antihistamine, and a stimulant, respectively). Quite a few laundry products, including brighteners, fragrances, and surfactants, are in the soup. Hair mousse, cleaners and disinfectants, cosmetics and food additives – the list goes on and on.

While you might look to your fellow bathers as the source for some of these products (caffeine, especially), the more likely source for most of the others is the nearby Lahaina sewage treatment plant, according to the report’s authors, Charles Hunt Jr. and Sarah Rosa. 

The plant, operated by Maui County, takes in about four million gallons a day of sewage. On a good day, about a fourth of that is treated to the standard of irrigation water (R-1) and is used to irrigate golf courses and landscapes along the West Maui coast. The rest is shot into four holes, or injection wells. The wastewater, which is only minimally chlorinated – just enough to keep the wells from plugging up with gunk – is more buoyant than the surrounding salty water, and so it rises to the top of the aquifer, spreading out in a kind of a horseshoe-shaped plume. Eventually, in, say, two or three weeks, it flows to the sea, entering the marine waters through seeps and springs right along the coast.

Past efforts to trace the wastewater flows from the plant were not conclusive. For one thing, they tended to look too far out to sea for evidence of the presence of wastewater. For another, the researchers involved assumed that the wastewater plume headed directly downslope of the sewage treatment plant. Samples of water taken immediately west of the plant, where the plume was presumed to emerge, failed to turn up a smoking gun pointing to wastewater contamination.

The USGS study, however, began with reconnaissance sampling along a much longer stretch of the coast. Sure enough, strong evidence of a plume emerged – a few hundred meters south of the area where early modeling had predicted it would appear, diverted “possibly by a buried valley fill from an ancestral stream course,” Hunt and Rosa speculate. In any event, they write, “the core of the effluent plume is clearly evident near Kahekili Beach Park. Wastewater presence was confirmed at submarine springs there by detection of carbamazepine and sulfamethoxazole, as well as two synthetic musk fragrances, a fire retardant, and a plasticizer compound, all of which were present in effluent sampled at the treatment plant.”

Discouraged, you head south to Kihei, hoping to catch a little surf at Kalama Park. Actually, Kalama Park is at the center of the mile-wide plume of wastewater coming from the Kihei sewage treatment plant, which lies about seven-tenths of a mile inland. Authors Hunt and Rosa also sampled seawater along this coast and found that the model predictions of where the plume would emerge were spot-on. As at Lahaina, wastewater presence at the Kihei beach “was confirmed by detection of the pharmaceuticals carbamazepine … and sulfamethoxazole … and by elevated nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations within the plume footprint.”


The Signature of Sewage

The USGS report follows close on the heels of another study, this one by a team led by a researcher with the University of Hawai`i Botany Department, that examined nitrogen in algae in nearshore water around the island to look for evidence of land-based nitrogen sources. Their conclusions, published in January, strongly support the idea that injected effluent from the three sewage treatment plants operated by the county – at Lahaina, Kihei, and Kahului – is released into the ocean in close proximity to areas used by the general public for swimming, snorkeling, paddling, and other recreational activities.

Meghan Dailer, principal author of the UH report, and her colleagues employed a relatively recent discovery – that bacterial action on nitrogen changes the ratio of 15N (a naturally occurring isotope of nitrogen, with eight neutrons) to 14N (seven neutrons). While the ratio in the water column itself can fluctuate in a short time period, the ratio of the two isotopes in algae can provide a more stable record of the nitrogen profile in the water over time. By measuring the 15N:14N (or d15N) in algal samples, then, it is possible to map the extent of effluent in the seawater, which is naturally poor in nutrients and has a very low ratio, from 0 to 1. (The ratio itself is expressed in parts-per-thousand)

Dailer took 600 algae samples from 130 sites along the Maui coast and analyzed them for ä15N. The lowest values were found in areas of little human impact, such as in East and South Maui and along the coast of Haleakala National Park. In the most populous areas – Kihei, Kahului, and Lahaina – d15N values were high, corresponding well with areas where sewage is injected.

In May 2008, Dailer and Darla White, with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources, went back to the Kihei and Lahaina coasts, taking algae samples for the USGS study. Once more, the a15N values were elevated in areas corresponding to the presumed sewage plumes at both coasts. At Kihei, d15N values of 15 to 18 parts per thousand were measured across the core of the modeled plume, falling off to values as light as 6 outside the plume.” At Lahaina, the d15N values were greater, reaching a maximum of 39 parts per thousand at Kahekili Beach Park. This probably reflects the higher d15N value of the treated effluent leaving the Lahaina facility – 23 – versus 15 at Kihei.

What’s more, the algae at both sites had higher concentrations of total nitrogen than did algae outside the plume areas, “a sign that they are exposed to higher dissolved nitrogen concentrations,” Hunt and Rosa write. 

No surprise there. Dailer and her co-authors calculate that from 1997 to 2008, the county’s three sewage treatment plants in Lahaina, Kihei, and Kahului dumped into the sea 51 billion gallons of effluent, containing some 3.84 million pounds of nitrogen.

* * *
Bad Timing for Lahaina

The reports by Dailer and colleagues (published in January in the Marine Pollution Bulletin) and by the USGS (released in February) could not have come at a worse time for Maui County’s Department of Environmental Management, which runs the three county plants that use injection wells. For the last five years, the county has been discussing with the Environmental Protection Agency terms of renewal for its underground-injection control permit for the Lahaina injection wells.

In 2008, the EPA held a hearing on Maui to accept comment on a draft permit that would have changed operating conditions very little from the status quo. Most of the testimony given to the EPA officer at that November hearing was highly critical of any proposal to allow the plant to continue operations without tightening the permit standards governing concentrations of nitrogen in the effluent, limited under the current permit to 10 parts per million.

In light of the public’s concerns, the EPA revised the draft permit in May 2009, reducing the allowable limit for suspended solids to 60 parts per million on average and adding a nitrate concentration limit of 10 ppm. (No nitrate limit exists in the current permit). Total nitrogen concentration limits remained at 10 ppm.

However, the EPA proposed new restrictions on overall quantities of nitrogen in the effluent, limiting the total nitrogen m
ass loading limits to 12,000 pounds per calendar month and 29,000 pounds per quarter, with further reductions to be attained over the life of the permit (10 years, per the draft).

In addition, by December 31, 2011, all wastewater injected into the wells would have to be disinfected to a standard of no more than 100 MPN (most probable number) of fecal coliform per 100 milliliters. Last, but by no means least, the new permit would require that by December 31, 2011, all wastewater, including the effluent injected, be treated to R-1 standards (a level allowing its use as irrigation water) by ultraviolent disinfection instead of chlorination. “EPA believes the use of ultraviolet disinfection will allow the county to increase over time the percent of wastewater from this facility that is reclaimed for beneficial use,” the EPA wrote in its statement justifying the new draft permit terms. “Moreover, since the LWRF [Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility] was initially constructed as a reclamation facility, using federal grant money, EPA finds it appropriate to place reasonable conditions in the permit that will shift practices at LWRF from injection to higher levels of reuse,” the EPA wrote.

Still, the conditions were not strict enough, and the permit’s duration was too long, to please the members of the public who turned out in force last August at the EPA’s hearing on the revised draft permit. Mayor Charmaine Tavares led off the testimony, agreeing that the ultimate goal was reuse of effluent – ideally to feed algae that could be converted to fuel – but that in the meantime, the county should “not be required to spend scarce resources to reduce nitrogen in our treated wastewater now.” 

Most of the public testimony was in strong opposition, however, led by members of a newly formed alliance called the DIRE Coalition (Don’t Inject – Redirect!). They objected to the proposed 10-year term of the permit, called on the EPA to require the county to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, mandatory whenever there are discharges of pollutants from point sources to waters of the U.S., and demanded that the EPA not award a new permit until the state Department of Health gave the county a water quality certification, pursuant to Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. (That certification basically says that a given operation is not harming water quality.)

Out of Bounds?

The county administration was clearly unhappy with the proposed permit terms. Although in the spring of 2009, Tavares had committed to phasing out injection altogether by expanding reuse, by August, her administrators were telling the EPA that the county could not possibly meet the timelines set forth in the draft permit without violating state and county procurement laws. A month later, it accused the EPA of exceeding its statutory authority in the draft permit conditions.

“The purpose of underground injection programs is to ‘prevent underground injection which endangers drinking water sources,’” Cheryl Okuma, the director of the county’s Department of Environmental Management, wrote in a September 21, 2009, letter to David Albright, manager of the EPA Region 9 Ground Water Office. The EPA statement justifying tighter treatment standards, she continued, “acknowledges that the only nearby public water systems are upgradient and will not be affected.” Also, in that statement, the EPA had pointed to a proposal for a downslope well that would be used mostly for air-conditioning purposes, but some fraction of which would be put through a reverse-osmosis system for drinking water use. “This proposed well,” Okuma wrote, “is not described with any specificity, but we are unaware of any finding that this proposed well would constitute a ‘public water system’ under the statutory definition of that term.”

In a document given to Maui County Council a month earlier, Okuma suggested that the EPA had no scientific data to back up its rationale for the permit changes. When questioned about this by skeptical council members at a meeting of the committee of the whole on September 17, Okuma deferred to deputy corporation counsel Jane Lovell. Lovell alluded to “some very serious scientific questions and debates that are at the heart of the Lahaina situation…. [T]he issuing agency is required by law … to have some scientific connection between the specific parameters that they are imposing on the permit – whether it’s the timeline, whether it’s limitations on particular chemical components, or anything else.”

At the time, Lovell expected the EPA to issue the permit soon after the deadline for comment (September 21, 2009) passed. When that occurred, she told the council, “if the county has concerns about any of the permit conditions… the county would have 30 days within which to appeal any permit conditions to the Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, D.C. Given the complexity of the technical issues, the very large amount of money at stake, and a forum in which my office doesn’t routinely practice … the corporation counsel may be asking the council at some point for authority to engage outside counsel to assist with any appeal.” That, she said, was why “we’ve brought this issue to you, just as a heads-up.”


The final permit has still not been issued, but it would be wrong to assume that the EPA has backed off its concerns about the Lahaina plant. If anything, its interest in seeing further restrictions placed on the plant’s operation seems to have been redoubled, along the lines suggested by the DIRE Coalition’s testimony.

The jurisdiction of the underground injection control program is, as Lovell suggested, limited to protection of underground drinking water sources. And, again as Lovell pointed out, the impact of the Lahaina plant on underground drinking water sources – situated as it is less than a mile from shore – is admittedly minimal. In fact, no one Environment Hawai`i spoke with can remember exactly why the EPA became involved in permitting the Lahaina plant in the first place; although all three of the county’s wastewater plants on Maui use injection wells, the only one that the EPA has issued a permit for to this point is Lahaina.

When Dave Taylor, manager of the county’s Wastewater Reclamation Division, was asked about this, he had no explanation. “If you can find out,” he said, “let me know.”

No one at the state Department of Health, which does issue UIC permits for all three Maui plants, could explain it.

David Albright, the EPA’s regional Ground Water Office head, acknowledged that this was a question raised several times during the course of hearings on the Lahaina permit renewal. “This certainly predates my time with the Ground Water Office,” he said. “When we first permitted Lahaina, in the early 1990s, my understanding is that at that time, there were concerns about the facility and its potential impact on the West Maui coastal environment. I understand there were algae blooms that were occurring. People were assuming the Lahaina facility had something to do with it. My understanding is that, driven in part by greater concerns about that facility and its impact, it was decided by EPA that we would call that facility in for a UIC permit.” All the county’s injection wells are Class V under the EPA rules, he said, a type which doesn’t require federal UIC permits, just one from the state. “Federal permitting,” he said, “is discretionary.”

But if any discharge enters surface waters, the federal Clean Water Act, administered by the state of Hawai`i Department of Health, allows no such discretion. The suspicion that effluent from the injection wells was affecting nearshore waters back in 1992 was what led the state DOH to require the county to investigate the fate of the effluent in the first place and to the EPA’s eventual involvement.
State DOH Safe Drinking Water Branch chief William Wong informed the county in April of that year that “the serious environmental issue of the algae bloom … has brought attention to the effluent injection practices… Please be aware that 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.”(For more on this, see the reports in the October 1992 edition of Environment Hawai`i.)

At that time, the county had claimed, in an environmental assessment prepared for expansion of the injection wells, that it had consulted “with several local water quality experts” who “believe that the blooms are a natural occurrence and are not related to injection well effluent.” An appendix addressing water quality, prepared by Steve Dollar, states, “in the region downslope from the Lahaina Sewage Treatment Plant … no substantial nutrient or salinity gradients were encountered. As a result, it does not appear that effluent materials are leaching to groundwater and entering the ocean near the shoreline in the area surveyed.”

Nearly two decades later, Dollar’s reports carry little weight, and it now seems likely that the EPA is heading in the direction of requiring compliance with the Clean Water Act, given the recent compelling studies linking poor water quality in the nearshore environment to the operation of the injection wells.

Challenging Authority

Last January, the EPA Region 9 Clean Water Act Compliance Office ordered the county to begin monitoring the injected effluent, to sample coastal seeps known to contain wastewater, and to conduct tracer studies at the freshwater seeps at Kahekili Beach. Under Section 308 of the Clean Water Act, the EPA is authorized to require information needed to determine whether violations of the Clean Water Act are occurring. “EPA is investigating the possible discharge of pollutants to the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean along the Ka`anapali coast of Maui,” wrote CWA compliance officer manager Ken Greenberg, referring to the studies by Dailer and her colleagues and the USGS. Attached to Greenberg’s letter were very specific requirements as to the level of monitoring and testing required. 

Okuma, the county’s Environmental Management Department director, responded on March 15, challenging the “specific authority under which the EPA is requesting this particular off-site data collection,” since most “of the requested sampling would require the county to conduct testing far outside the confines of the LWRF site.” In any event, Okuma continued, the county “has concerns on its ability to respond.” Okuma cited the lack of funds allocated for such work and the delays involved in hiring contractors under state procurement laws. Finally, Okuma referred to a 1993 study of effluent fate that failed to “demonstrate that pollutants from the LWRF were being discharged into nearby coastal waters.” What’s more, she added, the nitrogen in the effluent being discharged through the injection wells had been reduced by 80 percent since the time of that earlier study.

Then on March 10, the EPA’s Albright informed Okuma that before the Lahaina UIC permit would be renewed, the county would have to apply for a water quality certification from the state for its injection wells. Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, before any federal permit can be issued for activities that may result in discharges to navigable waters, such certification must be obtained. 

“EPA has determined that the county of Maui’s operation of the Lahaina WWRF may result in a discharge into navigable waters,” he wrote. “EPA has reviewed recent studies from the University of Hawai`i and the USGS, which strongly suggest that effluent from the facility’s injection wells is discharging into the nearshore coastal zone of the Pacific Ocean.” The county has until May 11 to submit the application.

According to a source at the Department of Health, as of mid-April, no application had been received nor had the county been in touch with anyone at the Clean Water Branch, which processes such applications. Dave Taylor, wastewater chief for the county, said he did not recall the letter specifically. “There’s a lot of correspondence that goes on between this office and Dave Albright’s group and the Department of Health,” he said.

Okuma told Environment Hawai`i that she could not comment on the Lahaina issue, since it was an ongoing proceeding. She did say she had seen the USGS report, but insisted that the county was meeting all standards required of it. “We’re highly regulated by the Department of Health and the EPA,” she said in a telephone interview.

* * *
A Lawsuit at Kihei

In April 2009, a coalition of native Hawaiians and others calling themselves the Puko`a O Kama Alliance sued the county and Okuma over the operation of the Kihei wastewater plant. The plaintiffs, represented by Wailuku attorney Lance Collins, sought the immediate shutdown of the injection wells. The plant is in violation of state water quality standards, the lawsuit alleges. Also, the plaintiffs allege, its operation violates the county’s public trust duty to assure integrity of coastal waters, is a public nuisance, poses a threat to the plaintiffs’ health, interferes with the plaintiffs’ practice of their traditional and customary rights, and violates the state’s law implementing the Coastal Zone management Act.

The suit was originally filed in April 2009 in 2nd Circuit Court. In August, Makena Resort Partners (which went into foreclosure almost immediately afterwards) and Keaka LLC, a company controlled by Everett Dowling (one of the co-owners of MRP) petitioned to intervene in the lawsuit. The intervention was allowed, over the objections of the alliance.

The county sought to have the suit dismissed, but the judge did not agree. Noting that no allegation had been made that the Kihei plant was operating in violation of its permit terms, Circuit Judge Joel August last February instructed the plaintiffs to commence “an appropriate action” before the state Department of Health.

According to Collins, the plaintiffs are hoping to intervene in the county’s efforts to renew the Kihei injection well permit. A source at the Department of Health said that the permit expires on August 14, 2010. The county has already applied for a renewal, he added. While there is no provision for public notice in the renewal process itself, he said, under the permit’s own terms, members of the public are free to intervene at any point. “No one has to wait until the permit renewals,” he said, adding that the Department of Health itself can change conditions of operation anytime it sees a need to.

* * *
At Kahului, Objections Over New Well

Last September, true to promises she had made at the EPA hearing in August, Mayor Tavares established a Community Working Group on Wastewater Reuse, whose members represented a broad cross section of interests and expertise. Among them were Irene Bowie, of the planning group Maui Tomorrow, Robin Knox, a water quality expert, and Jeffrey Schwartz, an attorney. All three belong to the DIRE Coalition.

Relations between the mayor’s people on the CWG and the DIRE members frayed quickly. The ostensible purpose of the CWG was to develop ideas on how to move forward with the mayor’s goal of reusing 100 percent of wastewater effluent and eliminating the need for injection, but the DIRE members came to the conclusion that they would have little input into the CWG’s agenda. 

Among other things, DIRE members accused the administration of holding back information, including plans to drill new injection wells at the Kahului treatment plant. “Although the issue of ‘replacement injection wells’ came up i
n the CWG,” the alliance states in a write-up of events on its website (, the project management team did not disclose to the CWG that new injection wells with a 10-30 year life were being planned for Kahului, Lahaina, and Kihei. We learned about it only when the Department of Environmental Management sought an exemption from the planning director so that no environmental assessment and no Special Management Area permit would be required for two new replacement wells in Kahului.”

Having learned about it, the group moved quickly to try to prevent the action. In December, the county planning director had already determined that the project was a “minor” action and exempt from requirements for public notice or preparation of an environmental assessment. DIRE and another group, Save Kahului Harbor, have appealed the decision to the Maui Planning Commission.

In their appeal, the groups argue that, among other things, the county is violating the Clean Water Act by not having an NPDES permit covering the discharge of pollutants into the ocean. (Dailer and her colleagues found strong indicators of wastewater entering the nearshore waters just off the Kahului plant.) 

“Apart from the legal concerns,” they write in the appeal, “we believe that important policy, practical, and fiscal concerns make reconsideration or appeal of the [planning director’s decision] imperative…. We offer one illustrative point about the wisdom of the proposed action. The Kahului plant in question has an uncertain remaining useful life. The seas are rising. The land is sinking. Part of the plant is already falling into the ocean. It is at great risk in case of a substantial tsunami. The plant is approaching 40 years old. It is not clear how long the Kahului plant’s remaining useful life is. To invest in new replacement injection wells at this time in the face of this uncertainty could waste taxpayer money. Other alternatives should have been (and must be) explored.” 

A one-day contested-case hearing before the Planning Commission had been scheduled for April 27. 

For Further Reading

The USGS report, “A Multitracer Approach to Detecting Wastewater Plumes from Municipal Injection Wells in Nearshore Marine Waters at Kihei and Lahaina, Maui, Hawai`i,” by Charles D. Hunt Jr. and Sarah N. Rosa, is available online from the U.S. Geological Survey Hawai`i website: 

The report on nitrogen sources around Maui, by Meghan L. Dailer, Robin S. Knox, Jennifer E. Smith, Michael Napier, and Celia M. Smith, “Using d15N values in algal tissue to map locations and potential sources of anthropogenic nutrient inputs on the island of Maui, Hawai`i, USA,” has been accepted for publication in the Marine Pollution Bulletin and has been available online since January. To purchase a copy, go to the “Science Direct” website:

The article by Guy Ragosta, Carl Evensen, E.R. Atwill, Mark Walker, Tamara Ticktin, Adam Asquith, and Kenneth W. Tate concerning Enterococcus on tropical islands appears in the journal EcoHealth and was published online on March 19, 2010. To obtain a free copy, go to the Springerlink website:, and use the search feature to be directed to the article. The full title of the article is: “Causal connections between water quality and land use in a rural tropical island watershed.”

The October 1992 edition of Environment Hawai`i has extensive reporting on problems at the Lahaina and Kahului wastewater treatment plants, on algae blooms in Maui, and on the county’s poor history on sewage spills. The March 1995 edition reports on additional problems discovered when the EPA audited the expansion of the Lahaina plant. 

Patricia Tummons


Volume 20, Number 11 — May 2010