Maui County locator mapUpdate: This story has been updated to include reaction from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino. The Maui County Council voted 8-0 on Thursday in favor of a budget amendment providing $9.5 million for a new wastewater treatment plant in Maalaea, a project the mayor opposes.

The money would come from the federal government and be funneled into the state revolving loan fund to pay for the project, according to Council Member Kelly Takaya King who authored the amendment.

The vote marks a significant victory for members of the Maalaea Village Association, Maalaea Triangle Association and clean water advocates who have long pressed the county to replace the community’s antiquated injection wells with a modern wastewater treatment facility.

However, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino is firmly against the project. In an email, Victorino laid out a variety of criticisms and said the decision “would set a precedent for other privately-owned systems to transfer liabilities of their own aging systems to the people of Maui County.”

Maalaea’s nearshore waters are polluted by sewage and sediments and are considered “impaired waterbodies” under the Clean Water Act.

Maalaea Harbor
Maalaea Harbor File Photo

Longtime Maalaea resident Peter Cannon is among those thrilled that the council passed the budget item.

“We’re super-appreciative,” said Cannon. “The community is going to continue to be proactive. We want the problem solved and for the health of the bay to come back within our lifetimes.”

Peter W. Cannon
Peter Cannon. 

King said she’s “extremely happy” about the vote.

Earlier in the week, the council failed to pass the measure after an attorney with the Maui County Department of the Corporation Counsel raised concerns about possible liability for the county over Maalaea’s injection wells once the new system comes online.

But Council Member Tamara Paltin researched the issue. During Thursday’s meeting, Paltin said she spoke with other attorneys and experts who said construction of the new plant can include a condition that owners of existing injection wells in Maalaea must clean up their wells before they are allowed to hook up to the new wastewater system.

After she spoke, the nine-member council voted 8-0 in favor. Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura was on an excused absence.

Paltin noted that council passage of the amendment doesn’t make the wastewater treatment plant a done deal. Victorino could still veto the measure. But King said even if he does, “when it’s unanimous, the veto doesn’t have much chance of surviving.”

“This is a wildly popular project,” King said.

Pacific Whale Foundation launches whale watching and snorkeling tours to Molokini from Maalaea Harbor on Maui. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2016

 

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele agreed.

“I applaud the Maui County Council for voting unanimously in support of funding a new, public wastewater treatment facility for the Māʻalaea community. This is a huge step for improving the environment of Māʻalaea Bay and providing a critical service for one of our local communities,” Kahele wrote in an email Friday.

“This serves as an example of how we can work across County, State, and Federal government to deliver for Hawai’i, and to leverage the historic resources delivered in the recently passed federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” he said.

Victorino sees it differently. A $9.5 million loan from the state’s revolving loan fund “is not even possible because use of those funds is restricted to County-owned systems. But even if such a loan was possible, Maui County would need to repay it with funds collected from residents who have paid into the County’s wastewater service for years.”

“How is that fair to ratepayers?” the mayor asked.

In Victorino’s view, money from the state revolving loan fund cannot be used unless the county owns the sewage plant. The only way for that to happen is if “the owners bring the project up to County and State standards prior to the transfer,” he said.

He also noted that a private developer proposed building a wastewater system in Maalaea as part of an affordable housing project several years ago and offered to connect the Maalaea community to it. Victorino said the community actively opposed the development, preferring to keep the mauka area as open space.

“Choices have consequences,” Victorino said.

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