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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 3, 2008

Hawaii sending more waste to landfill

StoryChat: Comment on this story

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

About 600,000 tons of trash are burned each year at the city's waste-to-energy plant, creating ash that must be disposed of in the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Jeff Mikulina

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"We're generating more waste than ever. Despite all of this rhetoric ... is there progress? No, instead we're backsliding."

Jeff Mikulina | Sierra Club

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Gary Okino

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"For now, we have to bite the bullet. ... It would cost tens of millions of dollars (for a new landfill). We have to keep it."

Gary Okino | Councilman

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A three-layer liner, right, covers a hillside at the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill. O'ahu is recycling a smaller proportion of its rubbish, meaning more solid waste is piling up.


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Daily solid waste is bulldozed into position at the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill. On average, O'ahu residents produce about 9 pounds of trash per person every day, according to the state Department of Health.


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Garbage coming into the H-Power plant is run through a magnetic separator, center, to remove ferrous materials, which are not burnable. H-Power offers waste-to-energy recycling at a plant in Campbell Industrial Park. The plant currently incinerates about 600,000 tons of garbage each year.


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

This observation port looks into a steam boiler where refuse derived fuel is burned as part of the H-Power garbage-to-energy process.


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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While the future of the island's only landfill remains in limbo, O'ahu is recycling and reusing a smaller proportion of its rubbish, meaning more solid waste is piling up in Waimanalo Gulch.

The latest state health department data released last month show O'ahu kept 30.8 percent of its waste out of the landfill in fiscal year 2006, which ended June 30. That's down from the 41 percent in fiscal year 2005 and 35 percent in fiscal year 2004.

In fiscal year 2006, O'ahu produced 1.76 million tons of solid waste, diverting only 542,747 tons for recycling or reuse.

The diverted trash includes what families recycle and what the city pulls out from the solid waste sent to the Waimanalo Gulch landfill.

Most of the trash that is not diverted ends up in the landfill, although about 600,000 tons is burned each year in the city's waste-to-energy plant. The burning, however, creates ash that also must be disposed of in the landfill.

In 1991, the state established a waste stream reduction goal of 50 percent by 2000.

Steven Chang, manager of the solid and hazardous waste branch for the state Department of Health, said he did not know why the amount of O'ahu's diverted waste declined last year.

He said large construction or public works projects can force recycling numbers down because they tend to generate a lot of trash that can't be recycled or reused.

"We need to not create so much rubbish and waste and try to encourage recycling," he said. "It's very difficult. There are a lot of people who believe we shouldn't have a landfill, but we continue to generate huge amounts of waste as a community."


On average, O'ahu residents produce 9 pounds of trash per person every day, according to the state Department of Health.

Environmentalist and former Planning Commission member Jeff Mikulina, who heads the Sierra Club's Hawai'i chapter, said O'ahu has regressed in terms of recycling participation and programs. He said a shift in attitudes, both at Honolulu Hale and among the citizens, needs to be made.

"We lag behind every city in the U.S. and probably every city in the developed world in terms of recycling," Mikulina said. "We're generating more waste than ever. Despite all of this rhetoric, and education and talking about the issue, is there progress? No, instead we're backsliding."

Between 1999 and 2006, the amount of residential waste produced per household on O'ahu climbed more than 30 percent, according to city statistics.

The latest data come as the city has yet to agree on a long-term solution for its waste.

Officials are trying a variety of strategies on an immediate basis to manage the island's waste.

They include:

  • Applying to keep the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill open for another two years instead of closing it in May as the current permit requires.

  • Getting authorization to expand the size of the landfill by about 60 acres so it can remain open for at least 15 more years.

  • Adding a third boiler at the H-Power garbage-to-energy plant in Campbell Industrial Park. The plant currently incinerates about 600,000 tons of garbage each year and can generate up to 46 megawatts of electricity.

    The city also is evaluating proposals that could lead to construction of a new facility, and a decision is expected soon.

  • Seeking bids for shipping at least 100,000 tons of trash to the Mainland each year.

    The city planning commission voted to extend the permit to keep the landfill open for two years, but the city must also secure permits from the state Land Use commission and the state Department of Health.

    Decisions on both permits are expected within the next several months.


    State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), opposes extending the life of the landfill and is threatening to appeal the planning commission's permit approval in Circuit Court.

    "The challenge has been that the city has waited until the last minute to try and extend the use of Waimanalo Gulch," said Richard Rapoza, Hanabusa's spokesman. "They knew it was coming and rather than look into alternatives, they've waited until the last minute and now they're saying there is an urgent need."

    What to do about O'ahu's landfill and solid waste dumping has been a lingering issue for more than a decade.

    Mayor Mufi Hannemann has said he wants to obviate the need for a landfill and has characterized the situation as fluid, saying all alternatives are on the table as the city works toward a solution.

    Eric Takamura, director of the city department of Environmental Services, said if you combine the efficiency of the city's waste-to-energy facility with the diverted waste totals, Honolulu recycles, reuses or converts to energy more than 55 percent of all waste produced each year.

    A 25-year master plan for trash management is being worked on, and initial reports from the consultant doing it suggest that current technology, if carried forward, could increase the amount of diverted trash to 70 percent, Takamura said.

    "We're really trying to change the culture. Hopefully, we change the amount of solid waste we generate per household," he said. "A lot of people don't give us credit for H-Power, and we feel that H-Power is a form of recycling. You don't see many communities out there with waste-to-energy recycling. Right now, we don't see how we can eliminate a landfill right now. We're focusing on diverting as much recyclable material as we can get from the waste stream that ends up at the landfill."


    Meanwhile, different strategies are being considered.

    At least three companies have been working to set up trash-shipping deals, and the city hopes to award a three-year contract by July to ship trash to a Mainland landfill starting in 2009.

    Some Honolulu City Council members believe the administration has not done enough to plan for the future and is taking a piecemeal approach to planning for dumping alternatives.

    Others say the problem pre-dates the current administration, and that it is the responsibility of the City Council and the mayor to work together and develop a long-term solid waste management master plan.

    "One of my biggest issues with the administration is that they have no 25-year solid waste management plan, but I'm not going to put all of this in the mayor's lap," said City Council Chairwoman Barbara Marshall. "I certainly think we can do a better job than we are of minimizing the (landfill's) use, and I don't think it's realistic we can get a new one. Are we doing all we can? I don't think we are. It's a huge problem and a continuing problem."

    Councilman Donovan M. Dela Cruz says a plan is vital for the future of O'ahu communities.

    "We need to look at the issue long-term because I don't know how the land use commission will approve the permit without a long-range plan," Dela Cruz said. "The administration is approaching solid waste (management) very piecemeal. We have to anticipate new technologies and explore new technologies for the next generation."

    Councilman Gary H. Okino said there is "no way" the city could build another landfill. It took seven years to secure the proper permitting for the existing landfill and Okino speculates that the process to win approval for a new site could take twice as long.

    And none of that deals with the possible cost associated with creating a new site.

    "For now, we have to bite the bullet. From the fiscal side, it would cost tens of millions of dollars to get a new landfill started. We have to keep it. We don't have any choice," Okino said. "We have to make use of the landfill and whatever we can afford, we should ship (trash to the Mainland) because that saves landfill space. If we can delay a new landfill by 30 years, the technology will be there."

    The dump opened in 1989 on 64.5 acres, and has generated much controversy in recent years after expansions and health violations.

    Former Mayor Jeremy Harris had planned to shut it years ago, but reversed course after plans to expand the H-Power garbage-to-energy plant ran into City Council opposition, leaving more trash than the plant could handle.

    In 2003, Harris' administration negotiated a deal to expand the dump by 21 acres and keep it open until next year, while seeking a new site. The council considered alternative locations including Koko Crater but voted in 2004 to keep the dump where it is and seek another expansion.

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    September 1989: City opens 64.5-acre Waimanalo Gulch landfill near Kahe Point, operated by Waste Management of Hawaii Inc. under 15-year contract.

    May 1999: City seeks to nearly double landfill's capacity, and to keep it open until 2017, by excavating 8 million cubic yards of dirt and rock from the gulch's rear and walls.

    • City signs new contract with Waste Management of Hawaii to continue operating landfill for 15 more years.

    August 2002: Amid community opposition to landfill expansion, city reduces proposal to 5-year extension. City also seeks immediate permission to raise allowable landfill height from 400 feet above sea level to 430 feet.

    September 2002: State Department of Health approves request to raise landfill height to 430 feet.

    March 2003: State Land Use Commission approves 21-acre expansion that allows landfill to operate until May 2008, but requires a new site be named by June 2004.

    December 2003: Four of 16 members of the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Landfill Siting resign after majority votes to remove Waimanalo Gulch expansion, the top-ranked option, from list of five possible landfill sites to submit to City Council.

    January 2004: State Office of Information Practices finds that process leading to removal of Waimanalo Gulch expansion from list violated "sunshine" open-meetings law. Site is included on list forwarded to City Council, along with quarry in Kailua, coral mine in Ma'ili, Makaiwa Gulch near Makakilo and a parcel in Nanakuli.

    March 2004: Mayor Jeremy Harris says expanding Waimanalo Gulch landfill is the most logical choice.

    April 2004: State Land Use Commission grants City Council request to extend deadline for selecting landfill site from June to December 2004.

    October 2004: Harris reiterates support for choosing Waimanalo Gulch expansion.

    November 2004: City Council's Public Works and Economic Development Committee votes for landfill on previously unnoted 23-acre site in Campbell Industrial Park, rejecting five options discussed in public hearings.

    • Committee chairman Rod Tam later announces additional public hearing to consider Koko Crater and possible other sites; Harris ridicules surprise proposals and says Waimanalo Gulch expansion is still best option.

    • Full council votes 6-3 to keep landfill at Waimanalo Gulch and seek expansion.

    December 2004: Mayor-elect Mufi Hannemann pledges to try to close landfill by 2008.

    February 2006: State Department of Health fines landfill operator $2.8 million for 18 types of alleged permit violations.

    • Council votes 7-2 to force closure of landfill in 2008.

    • Hannemann vetoes council decision and announces plan to expand landfill and keep it open for 15 years beyond 2008 permit expiration.

    April 2006: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cites landfill operator for alleged air pollution violations.

    September 2007: Wai'anae Coast Neighborhood Board votes to oppose landfill extension and expansion plans.

    October 2007: Makakilo /Kapolei/Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board votes to oppose use of landfill beyond May 2008.

    December 2007: Mayor says he will ask Gov. Linda Lingle to declare a state of emergency to keep the site open if Honolulu's main garbage dump is forced to stop accepting trash when its operating permit expires in May 2008.

    January 2008: The city Planning Commission agrees to approve a two-year extension of the permit on condition that the state health department allow incinerator ash to be piled higher on a portion of the site than is currently allowed. That ruling is expected within a month.

    What's next: State Department of Health's permit ruling.

    Reach Peter Boylan at pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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