City officials say they’re facing a “crisis-level” sewage and garbage back-up as they work to reopen Waimanalo Gulch after the landfill flooded nearly two weeks ago, pouring medical waste and other debris into the Pacific Ocean.

“This is absolutely an emergency,” City Council member Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo told Civil Beat. “We should have had a lot more urgent response from the beginning, and the priority at this point obviously needs to be to get that landfill open so we don’t have blockages and accumulations of different types of waste across the island.”

Tamayo, along with City Council member Stanley Chang, called a joint City Council committee hearing Monday morning to discuss response to the landfill spill. The landfill itself remains closed and in disrepair: a diversion channel to prevent a similar flood isn’t complete, and there are damages to a liner keeps garbage from seeping into the ground.

One of the key issues that emerged after the closure is the back-up of sewage sludge. The city treats tens of millions of gallons of sewage each day, and much of it is processed into fertilizer pellets. The sewage pellets that can’t be used are buried in the landfill.

“They’re holding the sludge that’s generated (from flushing toilets) and it is getting to be at a critical point,” Honolulu Environmental Services Director Tim Steinberger told the City Council Monday. “We definitely need to start hauling that to the landfill as soon as possible. They’re already starting to construct temporary holding areas. When you’re getting into a temporary facility for holding, you’re getting at the point where you could say, ‘I’m at a critical point.'”

That’s not the only breaking point that has city officials worried as the public’s patience with the closed landfill wears thin. Sidewalks across Oahu are increasingly stacked with old microwaves, refrigerators, old sinks, used mattresses, couches and other furniture. Worse is that some residents are dumping bulky items themselves.

“There is a lot of illegal dumping going on,” Steinberger said. “That is also a concern.”

But city officials say the crisis has them focused on fixing the landfill, not enforcement of the illegal dumping they see. At the same time, H-POWER, the incinerator where some trash is being diverted is running over capacity.

“H-POWER is running at about 110 percent capacity,” Steinberger said. “We’re dealing with an integrated waste management plan here, and an integral component is the landfill. When any part of that circle is disrupted, it creates a problem in the overall waste management plan. This is a serious issue.”

It’s unclear whether H-POWER can continue to handle the overload, but the consequences of a breakdown of one of its two burners would be a “significant crisis,” Steinberger said.

Past-capacity strain at H-POWER isn’t the only growing concern at the facility. While the ash produced by incineration — about 250 tons per day — is still going to a portion of Waimanalo Gulch not damaged by the flood, other garbage is piling up around the H-POWER’s burners.

“When trash goes into H-POWER, it’s screened,” Steinberger said. “Gravel, bits of glass, batteries, they fall out … That material normally would be taken up to the landfill but that’s being stored on-site.”

Also stalled is disposal of a massive collection of garbage stored in an industrial warehouse that burned down earlier this month. That trash, under the purview of the city contractor Hawaiian Waste Systems, was meant to be shipped to the mainland before that plan fell apart. The company stashed the garbage — thousands of tons of it — at the warehouse when it couldn’t get the permits necessary for shipping.

“Because the facility was so severely damaged, and it appears that the Department of Planning and Permitting will not let them function inside the building because of the damage, they are now working with the Department of Health with some other way to proceed,” Steinberger said. “Maybe a low-cost type of processing area that would stay within their permit. For now, the (garbage), to the tune of some 7,000 tons, is still sitting out of the facility. For now, they are at a standstill.”

Steinberger said that warehouse blaze, which happened one week before the flood at Waimanalo Gulch, kicked off what he calls “the worst few weeks I’ve ever had.”

Last week, the city extended the possible Waimanalo Gulch re-opening — originally estimated to be Saturday, Jan. 22 — to Thursday, Jan. 26 at earliest. Today, officials demonstrated little confidence that the later deadline could be met.

While the landfill remains closed for repairs, officials are watching the sky for more rain. In brief comments to the City Council at the start of Monday’s hearing, Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle put the blame squarely on mother nature.

“The havoc which nature has wrought, nature has now set straight,” Carlisle said of the sunny weather that has so far prevented additional flooding. “The good news is no deaths… no major injuries, no infections, no outbreaks of disease or large-scale loss of property.”

But while the mayor blamed “imperfect weather reporting,” the State Department of Health is investigating whether any wrongdoing could translate into fines for the city or landfill operator.

The cost of this disaster will likely extend far beyond the possibility of fines. Even if the Health Department concludes no penalties are necessary, how much will this messy episode cost the city? When landfill manager Joe Whelan sidestepped questions about whether Waste Management would foot the clean-up and repair bill after the flood, City Council member Tom Berg pressed him.

“Regarding your in-house efforts,” Berg prompted. “You’re saying there will be no bill to the city?”

“I am not saying that at all,” Whelan shot back. “At this point we’re investigating that and accumulating charges. We’re not concerned at this point with who’s paying, we’re making sure that the impacts of this storm have been mitigated.”

After the hearing, Whelan refused to answer reporters’ questions, citing the ongoing investigation.

“I’m not going to talk about any of that,” Whelan said when asked about how the landfill used pumps and other equipment the state requires the landfill to have on hand during construction of a diversion channel.

Steinberg, too, was reluctant to answer some City Council members’ questions during the hearing.

“I am just trying to deal with the crisis at hand,” Steinberg said when asked how much taxpayers would have to spend on the landfill spill. “I just want to start providing service to the population again. Right now, this is a crisis.”

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