The Maui County Council’s 5-4 decision to settle a Clean Water Act case has averted an uncertain outcome by a conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.

Environmentalists were worried that an unfavorable ruling on the lawsuit over the county’s wastewater treatment facility in Lahaina could have ended up gutting the Clean Water Act, opening up the nation’s navigable waters to pollution.

“The Maui County Council showed true leadership today in its decision to settle outside of court and not risk a historic standoff over the future of America’s clean water at the Supreme Court,” said Isaac Moriwake, managing attorney at Earthjustice’s Mid-Pacific Office, in a statement.

“This decision is a win not only for Maui, but for the country at large,” he said.

Earthjustice represents Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation and West Maui Preservation Association. The groups sued the county in 2012 after they tried for years to reach an agreement with the county over its wastewater reclamation facility, which has been releasing treated water into the ground that ends up entering the ocean and harming coral reefs.

Scientists have found the treated wastewater flowing into the ocean off Kahekili Beach in West Maui is harmful to coral reefs. Courtesy: Jen Smith

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 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.

The mayor told The Maui News after Friday’s vote that he is reviewing his options.

Maui County Council Chair Kelly King said in a statement that there has been “much unrest” over the council’s decision but that the mayor does not have veto power in this instance.

Angela Howe, legal director for the Surfrider Foundation, said in a statement the group is pleased with the council’s decision.

“This is good news for the people who enjoy Maui’s beaches, for the marine life and ecosystems, and for all people across the nation who rely on Clean Water Act protections for clean ocean waters, lakes, streams and drinking water sources,” she said. “We look forward to working with the County of Maui to complete the settlement process.”

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