Pollution in paradise reaches high court with high stakes

Benjamin Hulac, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- A lawsuit with sweeping nationwide implications for the regulation of water pollution makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The case, County of Maui v. Hawai'i Wildlife Fund, hinges on the origin of water pollution and the scope of the Clean Water Act.

Environmental groups sued the county in 2012, arguing discharges from a Maui wastewater treatment plant violate that law and are damaging coral reefs in the nearby Pacific Ocean. The county, however, says that pollution does not require a permit under the act because the wastewater enters the ocean through groundwater, rather than directly.

The justices' decision could cast far-reaching effects on the national permitting system for water pollution and change how the Clean Water Act, the country's bedrock water law, is enforced.

All the parties in the case agree that since the 1970s, Maui County has operated a treatment plant that disposed of wastewater by injecting millions of gallons every day into wells from which it seeps into groundwater and enters the Pacific Ocean.

But the parties -- which include EarthJustice representing the plaintiff, as well as the Trump administration and conservative political groups that filed friend-of-the court briefs siding with Maui -- split over how the act should be interpreted.


Under that law, permits are required for the release of pollutants from any "point source," such as factory pipes or something specific.

Maui says it does not need a federal permit because the pollution doesn't flow directly from the injection wells into which it pumps treated wastewater; the pollution instead seeps from the wells and makes its way through groundwater to the ocean.


And in a break from precedent under Republicans and Democrats, the Trump administration argues the pollution is beyond the reach of the EPA's permitting authority when it touches groundwater.


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