Shipments of isle garbage hit snag
By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Johnny Brannon
One man's garbage is another man's gold — but only if he gets to choose where to bury it.
Controversial plans to ship O'ahu's garbage to Mainland dump sites appeared to suffer a setback yesterday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that municipal governments can force private trash haulers to dump locally.
The ruling also could add pressure to recycle more, expand the Waimanalo Gulch landfill near Kahe Point and build a new trash-burning facility.
But the high court's 6-3 decision may not be the last word on trash-shipping, because the City Council is considering a bill that would bar the city from prohibiting the flow of garbage to the Mainland.
Some Honolulu officials have long opposed out-of-state shipping, in part because the city depends on revenue from "tipping fees" that trash haulers pay to dispose of refuse.
The court found that local governments in upstate New York did not violate constitutional protections on interstate commerce by prohibiting trash haulers from dumping in other states at a cheaper cost.
"Disposing of trash has been a traditional government activity for years, and laws that favor the government in such areas — but treat every private business, whether in-state or out-of-state, exactly the same — do not discriminate against interstate commerce for purposes of the Commerce Clause," the court found.
The ruling does not mean any local government must create such restrictions, however, so the council bill could still clear the way for trash voyages from O'ahu.
"Just because something's constitutional does not mean it is good public policy," said Councilman Charles Djou, the bill's sponsor. "Clearly, if the city can (restrict trash to a local dump), that doesn't mean the city should do it."
It remains unclear whether the bill has enough support to win approval. And if it does pass, the city might still be able to partially restrict the flow of trash because it has contractually guaranteed more than 500,000 tons per year to the company that operates the H-Power incinerator-generator.
O'ahu produces more than twice that amount of trash each year, however, so there's plenty to fight over.
The court case was watched closely here because three Mainland firms have been working for several years to ship some of O'ahu's trash to huge regional landfills in Washington or Oregon.
Two of the companies — Hawaiian Waste Systems and Pacific Rim Environmental Resources — are very close to obtaining state health permits that would facilitate the shipments.
The permits, which have been drafted and are awaiting final approval, would allow the companies to set up new trash-packing facilities on Sand Island and in Campbell Industrial Park. Airtight bales of trash would then be trucked to barges at Barbers Point Harbor.
The third company, Idaho Waste Systems, has applied for a similar permit to pack trash at Kenai Industrial Park, near the harbor.
The companies say it would be cheaper for private haulers — which collect trash from hotels, restaurants and some apartment buildings — to ship trash to the Mainland through them, despite the cost of a 3,000-mile ocean voyage.
But the city fears losing the revenue it collects by charging $91 for every ton of trash the haulers dump at Waimanalo Gulch or at H-Power.
Such "tipping fees" subsidize free city trash collection from homes. Officials have estimated that the city could lose $34 million per year if trash is shipped to the Mainland.
'ADDICTED' TO FEES
Losing control of the city's waste flow by allowing dumping elsewhere also would invalidate an important request for bids to expand H-Power or build an alternative waste-disposal facility nearby, officials have argued.
City attorneys are now closely reviewing the potential impact of yesterday's court ruling.
"As we understand it, it clearly recognized that flow control under certain circumstances is appropriate to serve legitimate local government goals to protect public welfare," city environmental services spokesman Ken Kawahara said.
But Djou said the city has grown "addicted" to the tipping fees, and should not interfere in private business plans that can help solve O'ahu's trash problems.
Jim Hodge, CEO of Hawaiian Waste Systems, said his company could be ready to start shipping trash to the Roosevelt Regional Landfill in rural Washington late this year.
That would augment the city's other waste-disposal methods, rather than threaten or replace them, he said.
"We don't want to get in a scrap with the city," he said. "We want to be cooperative and give them another alternative."
Meanwhile, state permission to operate the Waimanalo Gulch dump — O'ahu's only landfill for municipal solid waste — expires next year, and the city has no clear backup plan.
About 800 tons of trash are dumped there each day, along with 600 tons of ash from H-Power.
Reach Johnny Brannon at email@example.com.