One month since contaminated stormwater from the Waimanalo Gulch landfill was released to prevent a catastrophic failure, officials report they’re on track to clean up the mess, repair the site and prevent it from happening again.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Jan. 25 set a rigorous timeline for the landfill’s operator, Waste Management, to complete a series of repairs at the damaged facility.

“We are satisfied with the progress Waste Management has made,” EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi told Civil Beat. “They are complying with our order and we will continue to review and comment on their ongoing work.”

Weekend rains slowed work, but didn’t interfere with meeting deadlines, city officials said.

“They were working on Saturday but then they pulled out on Sunday because of the rains,” Honolulu Director of Environmental Services Tim Steinberger told Civil Beat. “It was not a heavy rain. It was not an unusual rain. Other than (that) one-day delay, we should be back on schedule, or stay on schedule as it may be.”

The key problem at the landfill was that a stormwater diversion channel was still under construction when the Jan. 13 storm hit, dumping more than 10 inches of water in a 24-hour period.

Waste Management General Manager Joe Whelan has testified that he had crews working overtime to complete the diversion channel that would have handled that water as soon as the company received the permit to do so more than one year ago.

Part of the reason the channel is so essential has to do with the natural topography around the landfill.

“I guess you would describe it like an hourglass,” Steinberger said. “Up above the gulch is a broad area and then it channels down by canyon into a narrow area and then it broadens out again. So you get an increase in the velocity of the water when it goes through that narrow portion of the canyon. It’s quite natural, but you have a large watershed above that area. It collects a lot of water, it comes through, narrows down, velocity is increased and then it washes down.”

Now, the federal government is requiring Waste Management to finish the channel by Feb. 15. But that’s just one of several deadlines Waste Management has to meet. And many questions remain to be answered.

Among them:

  • How much contaminated stormwater was discharged and what was in it?
  • Who’s going to pay for the work at the landfill?
  • Will there be any fines or sanctions as a result of the release, which fouled beaches with medical waste and plastic debris?
  • How much longer will the landfill be allowed to accept municipal solid waste?

Slow and Steady Progress

Some other trash-related services are slowly getting back to normal. The garbage-burning facility, H-POWER, is still busy making up for lost capacity at the landfill. Piles of rubbish that stacked up there during the shutdown of the landfill in the aftermath of the storm are slowly disappearing.

“All of the trucks are still going to H-POWER, so the wait is long and there is a queue that goes down the street,” Steinberger said. “It’s still about the same. As far as freeing up space, that has been relieved. We’re operating fairly normally now at H-POWER as far as capacity goes.”

The Department of Health is now investigating whether Waste Management or the city should be penalized for what happened. The Department is also investigating whether Waste Management violated clean water laws by releasing contaminated stormwater after a December storm.

Ongoing Trash Challenges Loom Large

A slew of longer-term garbage-related issues are still outstanding.

Even if the landfill isn’t fined for a noncompliance issue, the cleanup has been costly. Both the city’s Steinberger and Waste Management’s Whelan say it’s too soon to say how much or who will pay.

“Definitely not in the millions,” Whelan told City Council member Stanley Chang after being repeatedly pressed for not providing a ballpark estimate. “Probably closer to $100,000 or so. I haven’t seen any numbers.”

Officials say there’s no way to know how much trash and contaminated stormwater went into the ocean, or what exactly was in it. The city resumed bulky item pick-up services, but the landfill is still closed to members of the public who want to drop off trash.

There’s state and community pressure for the city to find a new landfill site, and the city’s permit to dispose of municipal solid waste at Waimanalo Gulch expires in 2012.

The city also needs to find a place for thousands of tons of trash that is still sitting at the location of a warehouse that burned down last month. The city had planned to ship that garbage to Washington for disposal before outcry from residents there stopped the plan.

“It’s just sitting,” the city’s Steinberger told Civil Beat. “It’s sitting at the same place. It’s 7,000 tons just sitting in the same location, still wrapped, still there. It’s not going anywhere for now.”

For now, the focus is squarely on the landfill, where daily work continues to meet federal requirements. Here are updates on some of the key ongoing work.

Tracking Landfill Deadlines

Requirement: Waste Management must begin filing daily progress reports (on weekdays only) to the EPA and State Department of Health.
Deadline: Jan. 27
Status: Waste Management is complying with this mandate. Civil Beat reads and summarizes the daily report, publishes each report in its entirety, as well as maintains a timeline showing looming deadlines and links to all past reports.

Requirement: Waste Management must outline a plan for ongoing daily beach cleanup; a plan to maintain the structural integrity of the cell from which garbage spilled and restore an over-capacity sediment basin to its intended use (plus find a place to dump all the sediment in that basin). The landfill operator is also tasked with developing a health and safety plan, to protect the public during the repair period.
Deadline: Feb. 1
Status: Waste Management submitted the required report, which totaled 31 pages, on Feb. 1.

It includes pages of bullet-pointed plans to pump remaining stormwater and muck out of several areas within the landfill (much of it will be dried and eventually put back in the landfill, other liquid will be sent to treatment plants); repair drainage systems and other pipes; analysis of excess water pressure under the liner in the damaged landfill cell; and other work plans.

A chart showing lab data from the stormwater discharged on Jan. 13 is presented without summary or context.

The report also includes a Medical Waste Sighting Log, detailing a 10-day span of medical waste washing ashore Leeward beaches. One log entry describes an unsubstantiated report of medical waste trucks “seen dumping their waste in sewer lines in Maile and Pokai Bay.”

Finally, it details a Stormwater Management Update and Contingency Plan. The outline almost replicates Waste Management’s response to the intense rainstorms in December and January. Key changes include an improved drainage system for water running onto the landfill site; and the planned completion of the stormwater diversion channel.

Requirement: Waste Management must provide analysis of the structural integrity of a temporary berm and the landfill cell from which garbage spilled. That analysis must be conducted by a “qualified civil or geotechnical engineer.”
Deadline: Feb. 4
Status: Waste Management submitted the required report on Feb. 4. It says that engineers from two companies — Geosyntec Consultants, Inc., and Goodfellow Brothers, Inc. — evaluated the stability of the temporary berm. Geosyntec reports the berm will be removed once the stormwater diversion channel is complete.

While the Waste Management letter accompanying Geosyntec’s report refers to analysis of the liner, as required by the EPA, no such analysis was attached to the document obtained by Civil Beat.

Waste Management’s Whelan continues to refuse requests for interviews, but he testified before the City Council’s Public Works and Sustainability Committee on Monday, Feb. 7.

“There was visible damage to the liner,” Whelan told the committee. “That area now is being investigated. We have to have a report that documents that, and then we gain approval to go back into that area and resume waste operations.”

Requirement: Waste Management must outline a plan to fix the damaged liner that keeps trash from seeping into the ground.
Deadline: Feb. 8
Status: Civil Beat has not yet been able to obtain a copy of this report. Whelan told City Council members on Monday, Feb. 7, Waste Management remains on track to meet EPA’s deadlines.

On Tuesday, Feb. 8, Waste Management released a statement that included this description of the liner: “In the severest storm on Jan. 13, the edge of the liner that meets the side of the gulch wall was damaged by falling rock. The assessment will determine what repairs are needed before full use of the cell is restored.”

Requirement: Waste Management must complete construction of a functional stormwater diversion channel.
Deadline: Feb. 15
Status: Daily progress reports about the landfill since Jan. 27 have offered brief glimpses of progress in construction of the channel.

Whelan told City Council members on Monday the storm diversion channel is close to being functional. While rain showers on Sunday prevented workers from staying on site, the wet weather also offered a positive look at what he said will soon be a working diversion channel.

“The diversion around the landfill will be functionally complete on the 15th,” Whelan testified. “However, the storm over the weekend did go through this new diversion system, and I’m happy to report there was no damage. It did carry some limited amount (of stormwater). It’s not officially functioning … by the 15th it will be functional.”

Requirement: Waste Management must submit a final report summarizing the company’s compliance with the order as a whole.
Deadline: July 20111

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