WASHINGTON — Maui Mayor Michael Victorino thinks a lot about the future, especially when it comes to climate change.

Rain bombs. Brush fires. Drought. Flooding.

The islands of Hawaii have experienced it all, and it’s only getting worse, Victorino said in an interview with Civil Beat at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, held here this past week.

“All of this stuff is culminating and we need to address it,” Victorino said.

Maui firefighter watches fields near Pulehu Road with gusty tradewinds pushing fire towards Kihei.
Maui experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons in recent memory in 2019. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

In 2019 alone, Maui County watched 25,000 acres go up in flames, marking one of the island’s worst years on record for wildfires. Among the reasons, officials told local news outlets, was that it was hotter, drier and windier than normal.

“Climate change has brought a lot of differences to Maui,” Victorino said. “We were so fortunate and lucky — thanks to the Good Lord, or whatever you want to say — that we had no loss of life, no major injuries and no loss of structure properties.”

Victorino, who was elected in 2018, said that while he was in Washington he wanted to meet with U.S. Department of Transportation officials to discuss his desire to move the county to all electric buses.

He said the county, which launched a pilot program last year, still needs to build the infrastructure to charge and repair the vehicles. The county also needs to consider what it will take to train a “new wave” of mechanics who will maintain a 100% electric fleet.

Other discussions Victorino planned to have with federal officials included his desire to build a new emergency operations center for the county. He also scheduled meetings with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to look for opportunities to help farmers on Maui grow more produce.

Hawaii imports anywhere from 80% to 90% of its food, and, due to its isolation, has only five to seven days worth of sustenance at any given time.

“Maui stands to be the food basket of Hawaii,” Victorino said. “We want to be able to produce enough to not only take care of us, but maybe help the state take care of itself.”

When asked about a recent U.S. Supreme Court case involving Maui County’s discharge of sewage into the ocean, Victorino defended his administration’s decision to fight.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by environmental groups who argued that the county was violating the federal Clean Water Act when it pumped treated sewage into the groundwater from injection wells in Lahaina without a discharge permit.

Maui Mayor Michael Victorino wants a green future for his island. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2020

The contaminated groundwater then moved through the earth and filtered into the ocean where studies have shown it promotes algae growth that kills the coral reef as well as the fish and wildlife that depend on it.

The Maui County Council passed a resolution to settle the lawsuit before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments, but Victorino ignored the directive.

Instead, he aligned himself with President Donald Trump’s administration and some of the biggest polluters on the planet, including the coal, oil and gas industries, that have sought to weaken the nation’s environmental regulations.

Victorino and other mayors met with Trump while in Washington for the conference.

Victorino told Hawaii Public Radio after that meeting that he supported Trump’s proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, a federal law that requires major infrastructure and development projects to study the impacts to the surrounding environment and consider long-term effects from climate change.

Trump wants to weaken the law to pare down how much time officials have to review certain projects and make it easier for developers and others to construct buildings, bridges and pipelines. Critics have described the proposal as a giveaway to special interests that would threaten the nation’s species, lands and waterways.

The Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments in Maui County’s wastewater pollution case in November and Victorino said a ruling could come as soon as February or March, although one is not due until the end of June.

According to Victorino, the concerns that the case could cut a hole through the Clean Water Act are overblown.

He said he was just doing what was in the best interest of the county — and other municipalities — when he refused to settle the case so that he could find “clarity” in the law when it comes to pumping pollutants in the ground.

Victorino added that the county is already in the process of abandoning its injection wells so that it can use its treated sewage for agriculture and “green zones” that will help prevent future brush fires. He said he dreams of the day when wastewater can be treated to the point it can be used for drinking. 

“That’s what I’m working toward,” he said.

Victorino dismissed the risk that comes with taking an environmental case before a majority conservative Supreme Court, one that includes two new Trump appointees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Undermining the Clean Water Act, he said, was never his intention.

His desire to have the Supreme Court weigh in builds upon the work of Maui County’s previous administration, which had appealed previous federal court rulings.

“As far as more pollution and all that, I mean, let’s be honest,” Victorino said. “How about all the plastics that are in the water and all the debris that’s out there? We’ve got a Pacific debris island that’s bigger than the state of Hawaii that’s floating out there, so there’s a lot of things that we need to do. I’m just one small piece, but I’m going to do what is right.

“I believe in my heart of hearts — and the Good Lord has given me this ability to understand — that this is the direction. We should have clarity and that way all of us will hopefully have a great future.”

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