The nation’s highest court is scheduled to hear its first environmental case of its new term Wednesday in a battle pitting environmental activists against proponents of fossil fuels and the Trump administration.
In County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether sewage flowing into the Pacific Ocean off Maui’s coast violates the federal Clean Water Act.
The case started over a 2012 lawsuit from four environmental organizations that argued treated wastewater seeping into the ocean was killing coral reefs.
They argued further that the discharge is a violation of the 1973 landmark federal law, which governs water pollution and calls for regulations that guide the treatment of wastewater.
The law has been called one of the United States’ first major environmental statutes.
Under the law, polluters must obtain federal permits for wastewater that enters navigable waters, such as the Pacific Ocean.
The case focuses specifically on the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility, a decades-old Maui treatment plant that processes millions of gallons of waste per day that is deposited into underground wells.
A 2013 EPA study showed, however, that 90 percent of the wastewater leached through groundwater and ended up in the Pacific.
Plaintiffs argue that the plant failed to obtain a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
However, Maui County officials argued they are not liable for environmental damage because the Clean Air Act doesn’t explicitly state regulations for pollution via groundwater.
Rather, they contend, it argues the law mandates such permits only for direct discharge into navigable waters, such as a pipeline.
A lower federal court has already ruled in favor of the environmental groups.