Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 21, 2010

It's punishment that doesn't fit the crime

What's the big deal?

And by "big," we mean nearly half a million bucks big.

More precisely, the fine that the state slapped down was $424,000, a charge against the city and Waste Management of Hawaii, which operates the city's Leeward dump. That amount is wholly out of keeping with the actual offense, which didn't end up causing any real harm. An outsized penalty at this stage seems pointless.

Waste Management built a berm supporting a wall of its Waimānalo Gulch landfill, but the builders deviated from the design approved in its permit. Because of space constraints, the company said, the excavated fill was heaped into a berm that turned out bigger than designed, and with a different liner material on the bottom.

State health officials said the failure to report the changes when they happened three years ago, and the failure to turn in final reports until recently, produced fines that piled up over time. Officials wanted to send the message that waving off the state permit rules won't be tolerated.

That's fine in theory, but in practice the Health Department sent a message it probably didn't intend: "We in the state are needlessly punitive."

And health officials named both the company and the city in the citation, all the while knowing that the city doesn't have two spare nickels to rub together.

Waste Management has picked up the tab for this fine, claiming the sloppy way that changes went unrecorded and unreported as its own doing.

But even though the city has dodged the financial bullet, it's good that the company plans to appeal. And that's because it isn't the first enormous fine, or even the worst one, the state has lobbed at the city and the company. Four years ago, the landfill was allowed to pile too high and liquid to build up too much, drawing a $2.8 million fine.

There may have been cause for a fine, but making penalties outlandishly huge hasn't produced more effective trash management. Taxpayers are understandably troubled at the prospect of one public agency fining another. Surely the state can ride herd on environmental rules without favoring punishment over rational enforcement.