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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 26, 2002

Trash problem mounts

 •  Previous O'ahu landfill locations

By Scott Ishikawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

Five years after it was left with a lone rapidly-filling landfill and a challenge to find a replacement, O'ahu is in crisis mode about what to do with its trash.

Our waste

The city handles about 3,000 tons of waste per day, of which one-third is recycled; the remaining 2,000 tons are burned into ash at the city's H-Power plant.

Composition of waste collected:

  • Paper 26.2%
  • Other organics 19.4%
  • Yard waste 17.9%
  • Wood 12.0%
  • Other wastes 8.3%
  • Plastics 7.7%
  • Metal 6.5%
  • Glass 1.9%
Garbage mounts by 3,000 tons per day — 6.8 pounds for every person on O'ahu — and officials are looking at solutions they acknowledge are only temporary fixes while trying to explore more permanent solutions. Aggravating the situation is Hawai'i's service-based economy, which produces lots of trash, and the state's recycling efforts, which lag far behind many parts of the country.

Meanwhile, Leeward residents are clamoring for the city to shut down the remaining Waimanalo Gulch Landfill in Nanakuli, city administration and City Council members have yet to settle on an alternate waste disposal system, and widespread development across the island limits potential new dump sites.

With only three months of capacity left at Waimanalo Gulch allowed by a state Department of Health permit, the city administration is now asking DOH for a 30-foot height extension at the landfill. The temporary extension will give the city another eight months to work with state health officials on a five-year, 15-acre permit extension at the site. Both the height extension and the five-year extension are certain to be approved because there are no other alternatives.

Ben Lee, the city managing director, said the city will close the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill after the five-year permit is up, meaning the clock continues to tick for the city to find an alternative solution.

So how did the island get into this situation? If officials knew this day was coming, how did the nation's 12th largest municipal county find itself with no place to put its trash?

City Council chairman John DeSoto, who represents the Leeward Coast and opposes the city's expansion of the Nanakuli landfill, blames the administration for not looking at disposal alternatives earlier.

"The city backed themselves into a corner with their poor planning," DeSoto said.

Lee counters that the city will use the next five years to expand the H-Power garbage-to-energy plant, as well as study technologies such as plasma arc that use electrical energy to reduce waste to road material and gases.

The city's H-Power plant, which converts garbage to ash and electrical energy, has been the city's answer up to now. But at times it has proved inadequate because of occasional shutdowns.

Even if alternative waste removal can be found in five years, city officials say O'ahu will likely always need a landfill for ash and other items that cannot be incinerated at the H-Power plant. For Leeward O'ahu residents, residential development in other parts of O'ahu may mean their worst fears will be realized: a dump will end up in their area.

Karl Kim, a University of Hawai'i urban and regional planning professor, said as O'ahu becomes developed, what was once open space for possible future landfills may soon be gone.

"With the island being built out, landfills eventually may be in someone's backyard, and nobody wants it in their backyard," Kim said.

State Deputy Health Director Gary Gill, who is negotiating with the city on its Nanakuli landfill permit extension, strongly recommends the city look "very soon" for a new landfill site.

"The city is going to have to move quickly if they are going to come up with a plan for a new site," Gill said.

Landfills squeezed

O'ahu has more than 60 former municipal and private landfills, many of which were owned by plantation companies and then later placed under city control, according to state Department of Health environmental engineer Gary Siu. Residents at one time were even encouraged to burn their own trash.

But as Honolulu urbanized, city landfills in Kaka'ako, Kalihi and Ala Moana were squeezed out of the metropolitan sector and placed in more open areas.

"The city began creating larger, regional landfills which government could easier regulate, rather than several small ones where illegal dumping could take place," Siu said. "Burning trash was prohibited in the 1970s and 1980s because of potential ground and air pollution."

So the city began building landfills in more open areas such as Kailua, Waialua, Wai'anae and Nanakuli. Dumps in Central and Windward O'ahu were soon phased out because of concern that chemicals from the trash would seep into the island's underground water supply.

The city then opened Waimanalo Gulch Landfill in 1989, believing the light rainfall in the area would not leach trash contaminants into the ground.

State Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Kalaeloa, Makaha) said placing the landfills on the Leeward side amounts to "environmental racism" and that the Wai'anae Coast — along with less-populated, poorer areas across the nation where land is cheaper — has always been a target for industrial and unfavorable businesses.

"As usual, government places industrial-type businesses and landfills near lower-income communities and/or minority communities," Hanabusa said.

The Leeward Coast's attitude toward the landfill issue, however, has changed over the years as residential development moved in. When the city opened Waimanalo Gulch Landfill in 1989, there was some community opposition, but nothing substantial since the site was in rather open space.

Then the city of Kapolei, along with other residential developments at Ko Olina and Honokai Hale, began expanding around the landfill.

"Now you have these residents moving in and banding together, and they feel the Leeward side is being picked on," Hanabusa said. "They're worried about how it affects their home values."

Unhappy residents

Leeward residents are also not happy with the city's recent environmental impact statement report for the landfill expansion, which lists two possible alternative sites in Makaiwa and Ma'ili, also on the Wai'anae Coast.

But city Environmental Services director Tim Steinberger said the city never intended to place the facility in lower socioeconomic areas such as the Leeward Coast. Steinberger said more than 40 possible landfill sites were looked at, but many were crossed off the list because they were too close to existing or planned residential developments.

"When we did the EIS, we also had to look at areas that were not located over the island's aquifer and were dry enough so rainwater would not leach into the landfill and soil," said Steinberger, who noted that today's trash contains more chemicals than in the past.

As to why the city didn't look sooner at other alternative technology, Steinberger said a city report published after the Kapa'a landfill closure in 1997 concluded that H-Power was sufficient at the time, along with the then-expansion of Waimanalo Gulch.

Hanabusa and others have suggested using the Kapa'a Quarry owned by Ameron just outside of Kailua, but Steinberger said the quarry will not be shut down for another three years.

"It would take several more years to environmentally prepare the site for a landfill," he said, noting the Windward side's wet weather and the problem of rainwater getting into the landfill. "The distance to transport the H-Power ash (from Campbell Industrial Park) to the dump would also be longer."

Steinberger said shipping trash to the Mainland by barge would also be cost-prohibitive.

UH professor Kim said the landfill problem addresses a bigger issue: a state that relies very heavily on tourism and other service industries that create a lot of garbage. Kim also said Hawai'i is desperately behind the times when it comes to recycling.

"For an island population with limited natural resources and land mass, we are way behind when it comes to recycling," said Kim, who credits the city administration for its recycling and greenwaste programs. "But government needs to come up with more bottle recycling laws (a state law passed this year establishes a 5-cent deposit for beverage containers starting in 2005), more mandatory recycling laws."

Sierra Club-Hawai'i director Jeff Mikulina said Hawai'i needs to be as recycling-conscious as California, or such countries as Japan and Germany, which have designated districts for recycling businesses and other renewable resources.

"We live a disposable, throwaway culture," Mikulina said. "It's easy for communities to say not in their back yards, but we need to step up on this waste issue because we are running out of space to put this stuff."

Some progress

Since the debate has been renewed on the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill, the city administration said it has made progress over the past year on the solid waste issue.

Steinberger said the city next year will purchase a 22-acre site next to the H-Power plant to bring in companies to test their disposal technologies. The city is also looking at plasma arc that could turn trash into things such as "glassphalt" for road resurfacing.

Other technologies being studied includes "anaerobic digestion," which decomposes organic material without using oxygen, to create methane gas for various fuels. Another is "Hydromex," which would recycle treated lumber and car parts and mix them with polymers to create a woodlike product that could be used for building materials.

Sludge material from the city's Sand Island wastewater plant will no longer be sent to the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill beginning in 2004, Lee said.

The city administration also wants to expand the H-Power plant by adding a $60 million third boiler to keep the plant going when one of the other boilers is shut down for maintenance. (The plant converts more than 2,000 tons of waste per day.) The city favors H-Power because it reduces the volume of refuse going to landfill by 90 percent and provides electricity to power more than 60,000 homes.

The council, chaired by DeSoto, wants the administration to look at plasma arc technology first before expanding H-Power. It placed a proviso in the city budget requiring the administration to do so.

"The city wants us to spend $60 million to $70 million on H-Power technology that is antiquated and breaks down often, while we have this plasma arc technology in which companies are offering to do it for free," said City Councilman Gary Okino, who supports the plasma arc option.

Steinberger said the city last month toured a plasma arc plant in Sapporo, Japan, which cost $65 million and burns 160 tons of waste per day — much less than H-Power.

"While the technology works, the question is whether it can be done on a scale comparable to H-Power and effectively burn regular municipal waste, not just industrial waste," Steinberger said.

Which is why the Harris administration won't make a formal five-year commitment to close the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill as requested by some Leeward community leaders.

"I wish we had a crystal ball to see how this technology will pan out," city Managing Director Lee said. "That's why, particularly over the next year or two, we will be looking hard at these options."

Leeward residents will keep a close eye on the city's progress as well.

"If the city thinks this landfill issue is going to blow away like the garbage on top of their 430-foot-high trash pile, they are sadly mistaken," Hanabusa said. "The trash is not going away, and we aren't either."

Reach Scott Ishikawa at sishikawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 535-2429.

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