Local environmental groups are touting what they say is a significant first step by federal regulators to deal with the growing plastic pollution across Hawaii’s waterways and beaches.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Hawaii’s Department of Health to list two of the state’s waterways, Kamilo Beach and Tern Island, as “impaired” under the Clean Water Act. Under that federal law, states must then take action to clean such polluted waterways.

It’s the first time that any Hawaiian waters will be listed as impaired based on plastic pollution, according to Maxx Phillips, Hawaii director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Kamilo Beach in 2011. Plastic pollution continues to overrun the Big Island beach, prompting EPA officials to force state health officials to list it as “impaired” under the Clean Water Act.

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The EPA’s decision might eventually leave state health officials with no choice but to list other Hawaiian waterways overrun with plastic once they’ve established how to monitor for that pollution, Phillips and other environmental advocates say.

Phillips’ group, along with the Surfrider Foundation and Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, sued the EPA in February, trying to force the agency to compel state officials to list Kamilo, Tern and 17 other Hawaii waterways as impaired due to plastic.

Hawaii’s DOH had refused to list them, saying “there is insufficient information and assessment methodology to make a determination of water quality impairment due to plastics.”

But EPA compelled DOH to re-examine those waterways. Once that was done, the federal agency agreed with state health officials not to list 17 of the waterways due to plastics — but it did see enough data and information available to list Kamilo Beach and Tern Island.

Tern is a small island in French Frigate Shoals, part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands protected under Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Kamilo Beach, sometimes called “Plastic Beach,” is on the Big island.

The lawsuit against the EPA, meanwhile, is “ongoing,” Phillips said Thursday.

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