The city and Ko Olina Resort are headed for a showdown this year over plans to keep the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill open past July.

Resort owners have pushed for years to close down the landfill because they are concerned that it’s hurting business and is a public health hazard. The state Land Use Commission agreed and ordered the landfill to be closed in July.

Debate over the landfill has dragged on for at least a decade, with the city repeatedly requesting extensions to keep it open. The city says there is nowhere else to put the trash. The controversy peaked last year when pounding rains sent trash and medical waste from the landfill flowing into the ocean and onto nearby leeward beaches.

“It’s time to move this thing along. There’s been a lot of reliance on each promise that it would be shut down,” Ken Williams, executive vice president of the Ko Olina Community Association, told Civil Beat Wednesday at the first of several hearings before the city planning commission.

Last June, the city asked the state to vacate a July 2012 deadline that it had imposed for shutting down the landfill. Ash and residue from H-Power, which burns much of Oahu’s trash, would still be allowed.

The city planning commission first has to approve the city’s request to take the case up with the state Land Use Commission, and another set of hearings will take place. The LUC will have 45 days to issue a decision, and will be under pressure to meet the July 31 deadline when the landfill’s special use permit expires.

Wednesday’s hearing in front of the city planning commission is the first of several before the planning commission that are expected to drag on for weeks.

Even though the process is seen mainly as an administrative formality, Ko Olina Resort and the community association are already staging a vigorous fight.

Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who represents the Ko Olina area, has also intervened in proceedings against the city.

Schnitzer Steel, the company that uses the landfill for its recycling operation, also has intervened, but in favor of keeping the landfill open.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the resort, Shimabukuro and Schnitzer crowded around a table in the downtown Mission Memorial Building. Paper, stacked a foot high, lined the conference table and filled boxes strewn along the floor, as Tim Steinberger, director of the Environmental Services Department, was grilled about the December 2010 spill and what Ko Olina says is a string of failed promises to find another site.

Steinberger has argued in the past that closing the landfill — one of two on Oahu — is unrealistic. In 2009, when the state Land Use Commission set a condition that it be closed in 2012, commissioners also acknowledged that it would take another seven years to develop a new landfill. A selection committee has been meeting for months to determine a new site — the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill remains on the list of potential locations.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Steinberger argued that the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill is crucial if there is a natural disaster and the city needs a place for large amounts of debris. It also could be needed if H-Power has any system failures.

“Not every system is 100 percent safe,” he told the planning commission. “So that need is always going to be there.”

He said that debris from the Japanese tsunami is also expected to begin washing up on Hawaii’s shores next year, adding greater urgency to keeping the landfill open.

The city has also pointed out that H-Power is undergoing an expansion that is expected to accommodate 80 percent of the municipal solid waste on Oahu, significantly offsetting pressure for a new landfill.

But these arguments haven’t appeased landfill opponents infuriated by years of extended deadlines and the spill.

Williams told Civil Beat that the landfill posed safety and health risks and that it was time to close it.

“It was a mere 12 months ago that this contaminated runoff entered the ocean,” he said. “Children were out on beaches with no warning while medical waste was coming up on beaches.”

Asked where the trash would go if the landfill was closed, Williams replied, “Is that our responsibility?”

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