Maui County Council members took a critical first step Friday in diverting a Clean Water Act case bound for the U.S. Supreme Court.

After a long hearing, the council’s Governance, Ethics and Transparency Committee, chaired by Michael Molina, voted 5-3 to recommend that the full council settle the case.

The lawsuit was filed by four environmental groups in 2012 after they tried for years to reach an agreement with the county over its Lahaina wastewater reclamation facility, which has been releasing treated water into the ground that ends up entering the ocean and harming coral reefs.

District and appeals courts have ruled that the county needs a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for the facility, which handles about 3 million to 5 million gallons of sewage a day.

But Mayor Michael Victorino, following the path of the previous administration, has continued to fight the case. He has argued that it could open up cesspool owners to needing the same federal permit, although state health officials have repeatedly denied this claim.

Supporters of the settlement say the move staves off an uncertain decision by the Supreme Court, which is set to hear the case in November if it’s not settled. They fear a gutting of the Clean Water Act.

Earthjustice and its clients — Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation and West Maui Preservation Association — applauded the decision.

“We commend the council majority for taking an important step toward the future and opening the way for the county to work collaboratively at home to resolve the problems of the Lahaina plant,” said Hannah Bernard, executive director of Hawaii Wildlife Fund, in a statement Monday.

“We especially recognize and thank Chair Molina, who showed integrity and leadership in how he conducted the proceedings, worked to obtain more information and thoroughly considered all of it, and embraced his responsibility to take a principled stand for the people of Maui,” Bernard said.

Read coverage of Friday’s meeting in The Maui News here.

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