Partial settlement reached in civil lawsuit to protect Honokōhau Bay from discharge of treated sewage into waters

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Hawai‘i County reached a partial settlement agreement with a local nonprofit that filed a civil lawsuit last year accusing the county of violating federal laws by discharging treated sewage into waters around Honokōhau Bay through groundwater.

Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in September 2023 on behalf of members of Hui Mālama Honokōhau, a group of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, fishers, paddlers, recreational ocean users, and concerned community members who use Honokōhau Harbor and nearby ocean waters.

The lawsuit claims the county is violating the Clean Water Act by continuously discharging treated sewage from the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant into the Pacific Ocean via groundwater without the required National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.

On July 5, Earthjustice announced parties involved in the lawsuit had reached a partial settlement agreement. In the settlement agreement, the county now acknowledges that it requires a Clean Water Act permit for its wastewater discharges and has committed to apply for the required National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit within six months.


“The settlement confirms that the county can’t avoid responsibility for polluting Honokōhau Harbor just because its wastewater enters the ocean via groundwater, as opposed to an ocean outfall,” said Elena Bryant, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the Hui. “We are now counting on the Hawai‘i Department of Health to do its job and promptly issue a permit that will ensure that the community can safely use the harbor and adjacent waters for subsistence and recreation, as the Clean Water Act requires.”

Complying with the Clean Water Act will require upgrades to the facility’s wastewater treatment processes to reduce the contaminants entering the harbor, as well as creative solutions such as reusing the treated wastewater for irrigation, firefighting and other beneficial uses.

Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth said his administration has made the protection of the Big Island’s environmental and cultural resources a priority.


“Through this partial settlement with Hui Mālama Honokōhau, we reflect our commitment to comply with the Clean Water Act requirement by applying for a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the treated effluent discharges at the KWWTP within the next six months,” Roth said. We look forward to collaborating closely with the Hawaiʻi Department of Health and implementing improvements to ensure a sustainable Hawaiʻi Island for us all.”

If approved by the court, the settlement agreement will resolve the first phase of the Hui’s lawsuit, which addresses whether the county requires a Clean Water Act permit for discharges from the Kealakehe WWTP. The parties would then turn to the second phase of the lawsuit, which will address the proper remedy for the county’s ongoing, illegal discharges.

“We are happy that the county has decided not to waste further taxpayer dollars fighting the need for a Clean Water Act permit for its wastewater discharges,” said Mike Nakachi, President of Hui Mālama Honokōhau, “Local families have suffered far too long from pollution that fouls our ocean and threatens our health. We look forward to working with the county to find solutions that will benefit our community and the environment.”


According to Earthjustice, the county-owned wastewater treatment plant currently discharges about 1.7 million gallons of treated sewage every day into a natural disposal pit located in a permeable lava field upslope from Honokōhau Harbor. Multiple scientific studies confirm that this wastewater flows into the harbor and nearshore marine waters through groundwater.

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