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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Investigation of Waipahu illegal dumping expands

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Central O'ahu Writer

Troubles for the city over illegal dumping at its Waipahu baseyard continued to mount yesterday, with the Environmental Protection Agency joining the investigation amid the growing possibility of millions of dollars in fines.

Discarded appliances litter the city's old incinerator site in Waipahu. The EPA has joined a state probe.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

The state Department of Health already is investigating the illegal dumping of several hundred tons of crushed appliances at the old Waipahu incinerator site.

That investigation includes whether the city is to blame for stockpiling the bulk of the items between January and November 2001, when it was negotiating its contract with scrap-metal recyclers.

Whether or not city workers were involved — and it has not been determined if they were — the city is responsible since the dumping occurred on its property.

Tons of crushed appliances — washers, dryers, water heaters, stoves — were found buried Jan. 28 at the baseyard on Waipahu Depot Road. On March 1, 30 tons of compacted "white goods" were removed and taken to the Waimanalo Gulch landfill. Excavation of the site was halted because of concern that lead, Freon and asbestos might be present.

The improper burial of the appliances could result in state fines of up to $10,000 per day from the first day the violation occurred.

That means the city, already in a budget crunch, could end up paying millions of dollars in fines for burial of the white goods stockpiled for at least a year in 2001. The state will have to determine the exact day the dumping began in order to issue the fine, but $10,000 per day for a year would amount to more than $3.6 million.

"As the landowner, (the city) is the responsible party," said Steve Chang, chief of the state Health Department's Solid and Hazardous Waste Branch. "That's why it's important in this kind of situation that when dumping is occurring on public or government lands, they notify us as quickly as possible. The longer the activity goes on, the more expensive it's going to be."

Chang said last week the city has claimed the goods were illegally dumped by others, but the state also has received information that city trucks dumped the goods intentionally.

City administrators are anticipating a revenue shortfall of more than $100 million, and the City Council is debating whether a property tax increase proposed by Mayor Jeremy Harris is warranted.

"This (possibility of fines) adds up to some real money after a while," said City Councilman Nestor Garcia, who represents the area where the baseyard is located. "I'm no expert ... but it's what you don't see that worries me. It looks like there's been evidence of something more buried there."

If investigators find that refrigerators and air conditioning units were buried at the site, with proof that the appliances were not properly drained, the EPA could refer the case to its criminal enforcement division for prosecution, which could mean jail time for anyone found guilty of wrongdoing.

Proving refrigerants were not drained, however, may be difficult because the goods were buried for a while before they were found, said EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi. Finding chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) residue from refrigerants in the soil is extremely difficult, he said.

"We can't just assume," Higuchi said. "They could've been properly recovered and emptied. But maybe they weren't."

It has been determined that CFCs — which were used in refrigerators, air conditioners and aerosol spray cans — have an negative impact on Earth's ozone, a thin layer of atmosphere that filters the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays and protects humans from skin cancer.

The state's only excavation of the site on March 1 did not turn up any refrigerators or air-conditioning units but it is unclear what lies beneath the 30 excavated tons of crushed appliances spread out over an area nearly the size of a football field.

"If we can show criminal intent, that's when it gets tough," Higuchi said. "We need to show willful intent to pollute. It's a higher measure of proof."

City refuse disposal superintendent Peter Kealoha said he was at the site March 1 during the state-ordered excavation and said that only white goods were collected. The site also contains construction waste and materials that should have been properly disposed of after the city incinerator closed in 1994. Kealoha declined to comment about the investigation.

The state is waiting for the city to provide it with a soil sampling plan sometime next week. The test results, which would show if there are any contaminants in the soil, will determine how and when the state can continue excavating areas at the site.

"My concern is always public safety," Garcia said. "We've got (the Waipi'o Soccer Complex) a wedge-shot away from the incinerator.

"I have to be worried about what effect that might have."

Reach Catherine E. Toth at 535-8103 or ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.