With the image of waves carrying syringes and vials of bodily fluids onto Leeward Oahu beaches still fresh in the minds of the public, a new task force is leading the way on determining what to do with Honolulu’s trash.

The Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Landfill Site Selection met for the first time last week. The 12-member volunteer committee came together as part of the city’s promise to seek a new site, which was a condition outlined the last time the state granted an extension to the city for using Waimanalo Gulch.

Its work takes on new urgency as the Council meets Monday morning to review the embarrassing spill of stormwater that closed beaches and was a blow to the image of the island.

But the group’s duty is to complete an exercise that a similar task force finished less than a decade ago. The city even city hired the same consultant — R.M. Towill — to work with the new panel, and the same facilitator – Dee Dee Letts – to moderate its discussions.

Some of those who sat on the 2003 task force say it doesn’t make sense to have another committee repeat the work they recently conducted.

“I’m having a difficult time understanding why they’re doing this,” said Cynthia Rezentes, a Waianae resident who sat on the 2003 panel. “Dee Dee was the facilitator before. R.M. Towill is the consultant again. It’s all the same players, the same process. I don’t know that you’re going to come up with a different result.”

A Look Back

In 2003, the task force — officially called the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee — began with a list of 45 potential landfill sites, then developed site criteria to narrow down that list. When the committee had eight possible sites, it used a double-blind ranking system to determine which site best met its criteria. After some controversy, the city ended up choosing the existing site, Waimanalo Gulch, as the best possible location.

“The process outlined (last week) was very similar to the process we went through in 2003,” said Bruce Anderson, a former State Department of Health director who is also sitting on the current panel. “So far, the charge of this new committee is unclear in a lot of ways.”

Still, Anderson said revisiting landfill site-selection is a worthwhile exercise, since much about how Oahu manages the trash it generates has changed in the past decade or so. For one thing, recycling efforts have increased significantly. Honolulu is also getting closer to initiating a third burner at H-POWER, a project that’s expected to be completed in late 2011 or early 2012. Not all trash can be burned, but the new infrastructure will dramatically decrease the amount of garbage that goes to the landfill. Ash from the burner will still have to be buried.

According to city officials, Honolulu diverts more than 60 percent of garbage into recycling, and incinerates about 20 percent of trash — some 600,000 tons per year via two burners — at H-Power. Officials estimate the third burner will burn another 300,000 tons per year, meaning the diversion rate of garbage to places other than a landfill will reach 79 percent.

“At the same time, the complexity of the issues has increased over the years,” Anderson said. “With urban development, there are fewer places to put a landfill. There are waste streams that are now even more pressing to address. I raised the possibility of multiple sites for landfills. It’s very expensive to site a landfill but it may make sense to have multiple landfill sites. You could have a site for construction debris and other solid waste that may not have the same stringent requirements as some of the other special waste like medical waste.”

(Construction debris already goes to a different site in Nanakuli, run by PVT Land Co.)

City Sets Boundaries for Task Force

Anderson said having multiple smaller landfills would also provide more options, location-wise. But when he suggested this as a possibility in the meeting last week, R.M. Towill consultant Brian Takeda told him the city only wanted the group to recommend a single site.

“The city is asking that you identify one site,” Takeda told Anderson. “The reason for that is, primarily, there are economies of scale that are involved. There is also a cost factor from both a financial and environmental standpoint.”

Anderson said he’s concerned such parameters will prevent the committee from finding the best possible solution. Another constraint, and perhaps the key difference between this task force and its 2003 iteration, is the city’s stipulation that the existing landfill site at Waimanalo Gulch not be included among sites assessed by the advisory committee.

“I think we should pick the best site on the island,” Anderson said. “It would be a huge mistake to walk away from a site that is aptly utilized and develop a landfill prematurely elsewhere just because of political pressures. It could still serve the city’s needs for an extended period of time. But then again, there is also the question of whether expanding the existing site could be considered a new site. The existing site is very clearly defined, and using the site adjacent to the existing site could be considered a new site.”

Takeda said he can’t elaborate on whether the city would classify expansion onto adjacent land as a new site. He also said the list of possible sites is not finalized. Within the next several weeks, the city plans to give the task force a list of dozens of site options. So far, the only sites the city has mentioned to the task force are a parcel of land on Bellows Air Force Base, and a Leeward parcel known as Waimanalo North. For now, it’s unclear whether, if pressed by committee members, the city would reconsider including Waimanalo Gulch in considerations.

“My answer is I don’t know,” Takeda told Civil Beat. “We really have to wait to hear from the committee members. They’re going to be allowed to suggest any news sites, and we’re certainly not locked into this list. The only thing I know is the instructions from the city are that Waimanalo Gulch will not be considered.”

The approach is in line with a promise former Mayor Mufi Hannemann made to West Oahu residents, who have long complained about the landfill. Essentially, Hannemann told them they had played their part in handling the island’s garbage, and it was time for another community to step up.

Will History Repeat Itself?

That almost happened the last time around, when task force member Todd Apo – who was then the vice president of Ko Olina Resort, and hadn’t yet become a City Council member – started controversy by asking fellow committee members to vote to remove Waimanalo Gulch from the list of possible sites. Ko Olina Resorts is downwind from the landfill, and has long lobbied for its closure.

Led by Apo, the task force voted to exclude Waimanalo Gulch from consideration, even though it scored the highest ranking based on criteria the group developed to establish which site would be best. Instead, the group recommended a site in Kailua; and three Leeward locations. Task force member Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a Kailua resident, was one of four task force members who resigned in protest.

“Some members on the task force wanted Waimanalo Gulch taken out, and we said ‘No, that’s not right,’” Thielen said. “We went through a very comprehensive process and then at the very end it became very political.”

Ultimately, the task force was cited for violation of the state’s open-meetings law when it was found Apo had held discussions with committee members outside of prescribed meetings about removing Waimanalo Gulch from the list.

After the state Office of Information Practices voided the group’s final report, the City Council pursued a site on city-owned land in Campbell Industrial Park, which ended up being too small. The parcel was also too close to the ocean for deep excavation necessary to construct a landfill. Controversy continued when former City Council member Rod Tam then suggested turning Koko Crater into a garbage dump. This and other ideas were met with ridicule from then-Mayor Jeremy Harris.

Finally, in December 2004, City Council members approved a resolution to keep the landfill at Waimanalo Gulch, based on the following reasons:

  • Waimanalo Gulch still had at least 15 years of capacity
  • The city already owned the property, with infrastructure already in place, making it the least expensive option
  • Costs and revenues for the landfill were already known
  • A landfill management contract was already in place
  • The landfill operator agreed to address community concerns regarding visual impact, odors, litter and dust control

The measure resolved to “effectively eliminate, to the extent possible, the need for a landfill by 2008.” Of course, that didn’t happen. Now, the city wants another extension so it can keep the landfill running past 2012.

City Asks for More Time

Even with a task force exploring alternate sites, it seems impossible a new landfill could be opened by the current deadline.

Environmental Services spokesman Markus Owens told Civil Beat the city estimates it will take up to a decade to complete the process to open a new landfill from the point when the task force begins discussing options. It’s part of why the city is asking for an extension to the Land-Use Committee’s 2012 deadline for moving solid-waste disposal out of Waimanalo Gulch.

A new landfill will also cost tens of millions of dollars at a time when city officials are struggling to manage future spending that includes a multibillion-dollar rail project and billions of dollars in sewer system upgrades. Given these factors, Rep. Thielen said it’s not the right time to find a new site.

“It’s a political move and it doesn’t make sense,” Thielen said. “Once you have a landfill, you should really ride out its lifetime rather than just spoiling another piece of land.”

Thielen lives in Kailua, which has been eyed as a potential site for a new dump. But even Waianae resident Rezentes said the formation of a new task force doesn’t make sense.

“I understand they’re under the gun to find a new landfill, but I don’t know how they’re going to have different results,” Rezentes said.

The challenge of finding a new site is so great that City Council members attempted to ship trash to the mainland, a plan that ultimately unraveled and became a black eye, much like the medical waste that flowed onto beaches recently.

“The problem is that nobody else wants a landfill,” said Peter Apo, who sat on the 2003 task force. “Oh Lord. It’s going to be a tough road to find the community willing to have it.”

Anderson isn’t convinced that the current task force will find another community. He said he won’t be surprised if the group arrives at the same conclusion as its predecessor.

“The intent is to find the best place to dispose of solid waste that can’t be recycled,” Anderson said. “We needed to consider the best site, and not worry about political issues. I believe the Land-Use Commission is of the same mind. If finding the best site includes the existing landfill, or a site adjacent to the exsting landfill, so be it.”

The committee, appointed by Mayor Peter Carlisle, will convene six more times between now and July, and at the end of six months, committee members will deliver to the mayor a recommendation. Until then, it’s all but guaranteed the discussions will generate controversy.

Members of the 2011 Task Force
• Bruce Anderson
• David Arakawa
• Thomas Arizumi
• David Cooper
• John DeSoto
• John Goody
• Joe Lapilio
• Tesha Mālama
• Janice Marsters
• Richard Poirier
• Chuck Prentiss
• George West

Members of the 2003 Task Force
• Bruce Anderson
• Peter Apo
• Todd Apo
• Kathy Bryant Hunter
• Michael Chun
• Eric Guinther
• Steve Holmes
• Ted Jung
• Shad Kane
• William Paty
• Cynthia Rezentes
• Gary Slovin
• Cynthia Thielen
• Gary Tomita
• Robert Tong
• George Yamamoto

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