Corrected 3/28/11 1:15 p.m.

Water released from Waimanalo Gulch Landfill after January’s heavy rains contained needles and syringes and was contaminated enough to close beaches for days.

But an internal City of Honolulu document shows that other than higher-than-allowed levels of iron, the water was within legal limits for chemical content.

The lab results, stamped “FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY” but obtained by Civil Beat1, show that water collected from five monitoring stations during the Jan. 13 discharge event contained 8.6 milligrams of iron per liter, nearly nine times the 1-milligram-per-liter standard established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The good news is that the Hawaii Department of Health, which enforces clean water standards, says high levels of iron in the water aren’t a cause for great concern.

“In the soil around here, we have a lot of iron,” explains Michael Tsuji, supervisor of the Enforcement Section of the Health Department’s Clean Water Branch. “Red dirt is really high in iron.”

That means high iron levels in the discharged water is likely due to soil runoff and not necessarily to prolonged contact with landfill garbage. Levels of more dangerous chemicals like lead, mercury or ammonia were within legal ranges.

In fact, the discharge was within legal limits for every other parameter on the list — everything from alpha-terpineol to zinc — according to the city document.

Source: City and County of Honolulu

The presence of iron, and the indication that there was a lot of dirt in the discharge stormwater, does signal some potential environmental impacts. Although the level of “total suspended solids” was acceptable, the lab results didn’t include “turbidity.”

Both of those terms measure sediments in the water, and higher marks could mean trouble for nearshore coral reefs. It’s also possible that iron- and sediment-rich runoff could promote algae blooms, which lead to other changes to the ecosystem.

Still, the potential impact to human health isn’t too serious.

Hemochromatosis, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, occurs when too much iron is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. But since most of Oahu was under a brown water advisory due to high bacterial levels after January’s heavy rains, few people would have been swimming in, and ingesting, iron-heavy ocean or stream water.

Clean water standards are established by federal and state guidelines.

There’s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s multisector general permit [pdf], specifically Pages 91 through 94 for landfills. There’s the EPA’s “Gold Book” of recommended water quality criteria [pdf]. There’s Section 11-54 [pdf] of the Hawaii Administrative Rules, which has basic quality criteria applicable to all state waters.

And there’s the landfill’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit [pdf], which lays out the rules for stormwater discharges specifically from Waimanalo Gulch.

Though the Department of Health has yet to fulfill a separate set of Civil Beat document requests seeking more water sampling results, the city’s own document indicates that the iron levels exceeded legal limits.

Tsuji said that doesn’t guarantee there will be penalties. For more dangerous chemicals, the standards are strict, but for iron, “we’re more lenient on that because it’s less of a hazard.”

Of course, chemicals weren’t the only thing in the water that was released. Medical waste, including needles and vials, washed up on Leeward Oahu beaches for days.

And though the state Department of Health determined the discharge was necessary to avoid a larger catastrophe and gave the landfill a green light, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn’t arrive on scene until days later.

The regulating agencies have yet to announce what, if any, penalties will be handed down to the City and County of Honolulu and Waste Management, the landfill operator.

About the Author