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Supreme Court Case Could Reshape A Significant Environmental Law


U.S. Supreme Court today hears a case that could reshape one of the country's most significant environmental laws. It centers on a dispute over wastewater and coral reefs. Hawaii Public Radio's Ryan Finnerty reports.

RYAN FINNERTY, BYLINE: On Maui, the local government has been injecting treated wastewater underground for decades. It was viewed as safer and cheaper than discharging wastewater into the ocean, which would require a permit under the Clean Water Act. That's because the 1972 act regulates the discharge of pollutants into surface waters, like oceans, lakes and rivers, but it does not cover pollution of groundwater. But in 2006, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources found that coral reefs off the coast of West Maui were dying at a rapid rate. Community members suspected injection wells at the local wastewater treatment plant were to blame. Hannah Bernard is a marine biologist and director of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case.

HANNAH BERNARD: We started organizing meetings and sharing information and talking about it. And then we got in touch with our EPA.

FINNERTY: The Environmental Protection Agency eventually commissioned a study to find out if there was a physical link between the injection wells and the ocean. University of Hawai'i geologist Craig Glenn used colored dye to track where wastewater from the injection wells was going. He says the results were conclusive.

CRAIG GLENN: Undebatable evidence that the wastewater was reaching from those wells to the coastline.

FINNERTY: Hannah Bernard and other environmentalists sued, saying that since the discharge was reaching the ocean, the county was violating the Clean Water Act. They won twice in federal court, but in a similar case from Kentucky, a different appeals court disagreed. The Trump administration is backing Maui County in this case - a reversal from the Obama era EPA. It's part of a broader effort to limit federal water protections in favor of state control. David Henkin, an attorney representing the Maui plaintiffs, says the Trump administration's stance on groundwater pollution is a departure from longstanding policy.

DAVID HENKIN: Really, it's every administration since the enactment of the Clean Water Act versus the Trump administration.

FINNERTY: Environmentalists say discharging pollution into groundwater is exploiting a loophole and not what Congress originally intended. But if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Maui County, that loophole could become law. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Finnerty in Honolulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Finnerty is producer on Hawaii Public Radio's local public affairs talk show The Conversation where he reports on local and state politics, business, economics, science, and the environment. Before coming to Hawaii Public Radio, Ryan was an officer in the U.S. Army stationed at Schofield Barraks on Oahu. He graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in economics.