Rules & Regs: Hawaii Injection Well Case May Reach Settlement

Also in this month's regulations update, an airport in South Dakota is in trouble for dumping thousands of gallons of wastewater

Rules & Regs: Hawaii Injection Well Case May Reach Settlement

What has been called the biggest environmental case of the year for the U.S. Supreme Court is on the verge of disappearing.

In early September, the Maui County (Hawaii) Committee on Governance, Ethics and Transparency voted 5-3 to recommend settling the county’s case with Hawaii Wildlife Fund and several other parties. The case was scheduled for oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 6. If the parties agree to settle the case, it would be dropped from the court.

The Maui County Council will make the final decision on the recommendation of its committee. Typically the council meets twice a month — once in the first week of the month and again about the third week. As this column was written, no second meeting had yet been scheduled.

Under the proposed settlement, the county would be expected to reduce its use of injection wells to dispose of treated wastewater, reimburse the litigation costs of the wildlife fund and the other parties who brought the lawsuit, and abide by a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.

Maui Mayor Michael Victorino criticized the committee’s recommendation, according to Hawaii Public Radio. He says he was disappointed the committee did not consider his own settlement proposal.

It was the county’s injection wells that started the case. For years the county has pumped treated municipal wastewater into injection wells that carry it deep underground — except it didn’t stay there. In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funded a tracer dye study that found wastewater from the wells flows into groundwater and back into the ocean near Kahekili Beach where it was linked to environmental damage such as algae blooms that smother coral reefs. In 2018, the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which represents Hawaii Wildlife Fund, claimed the county’s Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility injected 3 to 5 million gallons of wastewater daily.

The wildlife fund filed suit, claiming the county’s pumping should be subject to the Clean Water Act. A federal district court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed, and then the county appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

What is critical about the case is the potential change in how the Clean Water Act is applied. When it was written in the early 1970s, it specifically excluded some nonpoint sources such as agricultural and forestry practices, Erin Ryan, of the Florida State University College of Law, tells Pumper. Congress focused the law on pollution sources easy to clean up, such as pipes coming out of factories. Where we are now, she says, is deciding how to deal with those remaining sources of pollution.

The difficulty is in figuring out how to cope with pollution that is discharged from a point source but that contaminates regulated surface waters through a stretch of groundwater.

“How should we think about the connections between surface water and hydrologically related groundwater, and what do we do about the sources of pollution that are really genuine threats to the nation’s waters but are conveyed by something not as easily attached to a point source designation, such as a factory pipe?” Ryan asks.


Town Board in New York Approves Grant Program for Failing Systems

The Lake George Town Board in New York approved an agreement that will help residents replace failing septic systems. Under the agreement, the nonprofit FUND for Lake George will create a program supplying grants to cover 50% of the cost of a new onsite system. Each grant will be capped at $8,000.

Projects must be within 500 feet of Lake George or 100 feet of tributary streams for the lake, reports The Post-Star of Glens Falls. The fund allocated $30,000 for four projects in 2019. The fund is also working with Warren County to apply to the New York Septic System Replacement Program, which also provides grants.

Lake George is located in the southeastern corner of Adirondack Park, and local people have become concerned by an increase in the amount of algae appearing in the lake and by a general decline in water quality.


Suffolk County, New York, Considers Nitrogen-Reduction Plan

Two public meetings were held in Suffolk County, New York, in September about a plan to upgrade onsite systems in order to reduce nitrogen pollution along the county’s Atlantic Ocean shore.

Suffolk County occupies the eastern end of Long Island, and many properties use cesspools for onsite wastewater treatment. During the past couple of years, the county and its municipalities have focused on how to eliminate the cesspools and shift onsite treatment to lower-nitrogen alternatives.

The county plan identifies 190 subwatershed areas in the county and proposes nitrogen-reduction goals for each. Onsite system upgrades would progress in four phases during the next 50 years, reports the East End Beacon of New Suffolk. But officials believe the plan could have an effect on water quality in as few as 10 years.

During the first phase, from now until 2023, there would be 10,000 upgrades or connections to municipal sewer systems. The total cost of the plan is estimated at $4 billion, and the first-phase projects would be paid for with $535 million in federal and state money.

The local wastewater industry can support about 1,000 installations per year now, but that will grow, Deputy County Executive Peter A. Scully tells the newspaper.


Virginia Counties Apply for Grant to Help With Failing Onsite Systems

Homeowners with failing septic systems or no system may be eligible for financial help if they live in Bland, Carroll, Grayson, Smyth, Washington or Wythe counties or the cities of Bristol or Galax in Virginia.

The Mount Rogers Planning District Commission, which serves these municipalities, is applying for a grant for 2020 from the Virginia Department of Housing & Community Development, reports the news website SWVA Today. Funds will help low- and moderate-income families who do not have safe drinking water supplies or who have failing septic systems or no septic system.

In 2019, 13 projects were completed, and planner Josh Smith expects the district will receive grant money for another 13 projects in 2020. Applications for the 2020 program may be submitted beginning in mid-October. 


Florida County’s Growth Depends on Septic Systems

A study of Charlotte County, Florida’s development concluded its future growth will depend on onsite systems because sewer system expansion is not keeping up with growth.

The study is part of a state-mandated review of water and sewer capacity that takes place every five years, reports the Port Charlotte Sun. The county is in the southwestern part of the state near Fort Myers.

Five years ago, a similar study concluded the number of new onsite systems was decreasing, but in the last few years, the number has ballooned as people built new dwellings, says Matt Trepal, the county’s principal planner. To address the water-quality programs that come with old systems, the county is removing those in critical areas near open water. 


Two Michigan Counties Weigh Inspection Requirements

Two counties on the northwestern side of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula are trying to take different directions with requirements for onsite system inspections at the time a property is sold.

Kalkaska County commissioners are deciding whether to complete a proposal to withdraw from the inspection program operated through the area health department, reports the Traverse City Record-Eagle. In nearby Manistee County, commissioners are trying to remove exemptions in order to strengthen the program.

Because the same health department covers both counties, each county’s commissioners must approve the actions of the other county. Both county boards have refused to consider the other’s requested changes.

People in favor of the program say it protects homebuyers and helps keep drinking water safe, while opponents say the program has too many exemptions and creates a backlog of transactions on hold pending inspections.

At a public hearing in Kalkaska County, several people told commissioners that the program could be amended to address criticisms while protecting the environment.


Airport in South Dakota in Trouble for Wastewater Dumps

The Rapid City (South Dakota) Regional Airport recently got in trouble for dumping thousands of gallons of wastewater on its property without talking to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

In mid-July, the airport hired a contractor to pump 30,000 gallons of wastewater from its overfull lagoon onto another part of its property. In August, another 74,100 gallons were pumped to the same place.

“We were getting calls that the airport was land-applying the water, which was one of their options, but they had not gone through the necessary steps to get the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ approval,” Brian Walsh, environmental scientist manager with the department, tells TV station KEVN. He says his agency told the airport to stop what it was doing and consider a permit for land application. The airport’s executive director says heavy rains brought about more use of car washes for rental vehicles, and that put an extra 100,000 gallons of water into the lagoon.



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