City fined $2.8M for landfill offenses
By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Robbie Dingeman
Questions about the future of O'ahu's only municipal trash dump arose quickly yesterday after the Health Department levied one of the state's biggest environmental fines ever against the city — nearly $2.8 million — for violations at the Waimanalo Gulch landfill.
"These are serious violations that warrant a large penalty," said Deputy State Health Director Laurence Lau. He said the Health Department notice lists 18 types of violations over a two-year period that were uncovered in a six-month investigation.
The city says the dump's private operator will pay the fine.
City Councilman Todd Apo, who represents the Wai'anae Coast/Kapolei area, said the charges show that years of community complaints about litter, pollution and other problems are justified and the city needs to find an alternative to dumping there by 2008 when its landfill permit expires.
"This makes it clear that it would be ludicrous to talk about extending the landfill permit at Waimanalo Gulch," Apo said. "There are some big problems there and it doesn't make sense to operate there anymore."
The city and Waste Management of Hawaii Inc. were cited for violations at the Waimanalo Gulch landfill that include:
Lau said there's no evidence that people got sick because of the violations, but they put public health and the environment at risk and that's why the state levied one of its largest fines ever. Lau said it's the biggest fine of a landfill in the state's history and is one of the largest overall.
The Waimanalo Gulch landfill has been the object of warning letters from the Health Department over the years for a variety of problems, but the fine levied this week was the first against the facility, Health Department officials said.
City Environmental Services Director Eric Takamura said the private company that runs the landfill will pay the fines and has taken steps to correct most of the problems.
"These violations are operational deficiencies for which Waste Management of Hawaii Inc. is taking full responsibility," Takamura said. "The city will not be paying any of the penalties for these violations."
Takamura said many of the violations occurred before Mayor Mufi Hannemann's administration took office in January 2005.
"We immediately took steps to remedy those deficiencies," Takamura said, including meeting regularly with the state and the company to fix problems with the leachate system, grading, litter, record-keeping and other issues.
Waste Management issued a written statement saying the company is working closely with the Health Department "to correct historical operational issues at the landfill."
"Waste Management has taken significant efforts to address the issues," officials wrote.
The Wai'anae Coast has been home to most of O'ahu's trash for nearly two decades.
Residents have clamored for the city to shut down the landfill, but in 2003, with no other trash disposal options in sight, the city received a five-year extension to operate Waimanalo Gulch. At the time, officials called it the landfill's final expansion. But last month, Hannemann said he's not sure if the city will be able to meet the deadline — set before he took office — of closing the landfill by 2008.
In the coming weeks, Hannemann's administration expects to announce a strategic plan to handle solid waste.
Longtime Wai'anae resident Cynthia Rezentes said she hopes the fine pushes the city to look for options other than putting a landfill in somebody's backyard.
"We don't want landfills," she said. "There needs to be another approach."
She praised the big fine and the state's long list of violations.
"From my standpoint, I think it's about time," she said. "Maybe they'll clean up their act."
Dr. Glenn Okihiro is a dentist who serves as president of the condo association for Ko Olina's Kailani development, which is across Farrington Highway from the landfill.
Okihiro said residents have seen a change for the better since a new management team began last year, but many problems have plagued the area for years. "It has improved drastically as far as the odor and the trash blowing off," he said.
But he's looking for more action. "How long is it going to take to correct some of these ongoing problems?" he asked. "Sometimes a fine is the only way to get the city to be moving fast.
Lau, the deputy state health director, said the big penalty sends a message about the seriousness of the allegations.
"Failure to cover solid waste daily violated a basic principle of landfill management," Lau said, "so rats and insects don't make a feast out of it."
Failure to report violations on time is serious because it hurts the department's ability to monitor the landfill and deal with problems early, he said.
Lau said the state also ordered the city to develop plans to ensure future permit compliance, provide various records and reports and update monitoring.
The Health Department order also requires the city to:
Takamura, the environmental services director, said the city will keep working to reduce problems to comply with the permit.
He expects that Waste Management will challenge the order. The company and the city have 20 days to do so.
Reach Robbie Dingeman at email@example.com.