Leeward coast residents, particularly those at Ko Olina resort, found used syringes, vials of blood, catheters and other garbage in an ocean that turned from turquoise to murky brown in January 2011.
Pounding rains had overwhelmed the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill, sending millions of gallons of polluted storm water and garbage into the sea. Bacteria test results from nearshore waters, indicating the presence of sewage, registered more than 600 times higher than the state’s safe limit.
In the weeks after the environmental disaster, executives of Waste Management Hawaii, which operates the city landfill, blamed a freak heavy rainfall and said that they were just weeks away from completing a storm water diversion channel that would have prevented the discharges.
But late last month, a federal grand jury issued a 13-count indictment that paints a startling version of events that transpired before and after the spill.
The indictment lays out detailed allegations that officials at Waste Management Hawaii repeatedly lied to federal and state health officials about having an adequate storm water system in place at the time of the spill.
It cites evidence of landfill managers conspiring with an unidentified Honolulu environmental consulting firm to cover up deficiencies and dupe state health officials into issuing a storm water discharge permit allowing the facility to continue operations.
And it accuses the landfill operator of shoddy management practices, such as covering garbage with a torn tarp that was quickly swept away by heavy rains in December, leaving mounds of sewage, spoiled food and other trash exposed to rainwater. Waste Management Hawaii was legally required to cover the garbage with at least six inches of soil, according to the indictment.
This week, Joseph Whelan, the landfill company’s general manager and vice president, and Justin Lottig, its environmental protection manager, pleaded not guilty to the charges in U.S. District Court. Both could face prison time and fines of up to $250,000 for each count. Their trial is scheduled for July 22.
Waste Management Hawaii, a subsidiary of Houston-based Waste Management Inc., also faces fines of up to $500,000 for each count.
The private Honolulu consulting firm and its employees, who allegedly conspired to perpetuate the crimes, are not named in the indictment because they have entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the government, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Silverberg, who is prosecuting the case.
However, a recent U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing indicates that the unnamed company is AECOM.
On May 7, AECOM disclosed that one of its subsidiaries agreed to pay $1.35 million as part of a non-prosecution agreement related to spills at the Waimanalo landfill. An undisclosed portion of the settlement will be paid to a community nonprofit chosen by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, according to the SEC filing.
Neither Whelan nor Lottig returned calls seeking comment for this story. However, Waste Management Hawaii issued a statement shortly after the indictment in April, saying that there is no basis for the charges and that the company will “vigorously defend against this extraordinary action.”
The indictment is reigniting a years-long fight waged by Leeward residents to have the landfill shut down and relocated to another part of the island. It’s also fueling calls for the city to cancel its contract with Waste Management Hawaii, where Whelan and Lottig remain employed.
In December 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the city and Waste Management to address storm water violations at the landfill related to the spills. Waste Management was required to completely separate storm water generated outside of the landfill from that generated at the landfill. EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi said that the landfill operators had completed these improvements as of February 2012.
Meanwhile, the results of the three-year federal investigation detailed in the indictment reveal a very different version of events than what was disclosed by government officials and landfill employees in the weeks following the January spill. Civil Beat has recreated the chronology of events as alleged by federal investigators.
The Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill is a cavernous, 200-acre facility in Kapolei that sits mauka of Ko Olina resort and its residential community. It’s the city’s only municipal landfill and accepts tens of thousands of tons of garbage and sewage annually, as well as ash and residue from H-Power, which burns the bulk of the island’s garbage.
In 2010, Waste Management Hawaii was in the midst of expanding the landfill to accept more trash.
During construction on Feb. 9, 2010, the company removed and shut down major infrastructure designed to prevent polluted storm water discharges, including two 48-inch drainage pipes and a 25-foot headwall used to divert storm water away from the landfill’s trash.
The company repeatedly lied to the state Department of Health about the changes, according to the indictment, including submitting maps to health officials that indicated the protective measures were still in place.
The state health department is in charge of enforcing the federal Clean Water Act.
Lottig also lied to state health officials by telling them that a 78-inch fiberglass reinforced pipe had replaced the two 48-inch pipes, “when, in truth and in fact, as Lottig well knew, the 78-inch pipe had not be installed,” according to the indictment.
On Oct. 22, 2010, when the landfill expansion opened — it would become known as Cell E6 — adequate storm water protections were not in place.
Honolulu city officials still haven’t found a site for a new landfill for Oahu so work continues at the Waimanalo Gulch facility in West Oahu.
For the next several weeks, “despite having an inadequate storm water management system,” landfill workers placed millions of pounds of waste into Cell E6, according to the indictment. It included raw sewage and treated sewage sludge; dead animals; treated medical waste such as syringes, blood vials and catheters; spoiled food and incinerator residue from the H-Power plant.
In early January 2011, the island was hit with major rainfall, said at the time to have exceeded a 25-year storm event. That’s when Leeward coast residents noticed garbage washing up on beaches.
But there were actually problems several weeks before.
On Dec. 18, workers deposited in the landfill at least 16,000 pounds of sewage waste, including an unknown amount of raw sewage, at least 60,000 pounds of sewage sludge, some 12,000 pounds of spoiled food, at least 256,000 pounds of H-Power incinerator residue and about 28,000 pounds of other solid waste.
Much of it wasn’t covered with soil, according to the indictment. Rather, workers put a tarp over it that had a large tear down the middle.
That evening a heavy rainstorm hit the coast, causing storm water to flood Cell E6 and displace the tarp.
“At that point, there was little barrier between the waste buried in Cell E6 on December 18, 2010, and the incoming storm water,” according to the indictment. “Thereafter the storm water mixed with and dissolved some or all of the raw sewage, sewage sludge, and the incinerator residue. Other solid waste floated in the storm water.”
The document states that on Dec. 19, Whelan, in agreement with Lottig, had a construction worker uncover a manhole and pump the contaminated storm water into the landfill’s sedimentation basin, which collects pollutants before the storm water is discharged into the ocean, similar to a screen in a kitchen sink.
But the landfill operators pumped so much contaminated storm water into the the sedimentation basin from Dec. 19 to 23 that there wasn’t enough time for the pollutants to settle before the storm water flowed into the ocean through three outfall pipes. The indictment described it as “containing raw untreated sewage and other bar screen waste; sewage sludge; incinerator residue; and soil, all pollutants under the Clean Water Act.”
On Dec. 23, Lottig allegedly lied to state health inspectors about the incident, telling them Cell E3 had been covered by a 12-inch layer of soil at the time of the heavy rains and that none of the storm water had come into contact with the landfill waste.
Health officials went out to inspect the landfill on Jan. 6 and told Whelan not to pump any more contaminated storm water from Cell E6 into the landfill’s storm water discharge system. The manhole was ordered closed.
Still, with an even bigger storm approaching, Whelan decided to leave the manhole open, according to the indictment.
Beginning Jan. 12, rains pounded leeward Oahu, flooding the landfill and mixing with the millions of pounds of waste that had been deposited in Cell E6. It overflowed and millions of gallons of contaminated storm water flowed through the uncovered manhole and down into the sedimentation basin, which couldn’t handle the volume.
“The sedimentation, in turn, filled up and overflowed to such an extent that medical waste, raw untreated sewage and other bar screen waste, sewage sludge, incinerator waste, and solid waste flowed over the spillway of the sedimentation basin into the culvert below the landfill and, from there, into the outfall pipes located under Farrington Highway,” the indictment states.
The second set of unauthorized storm water discharges lasted from the evening of Jan. 12 into the next morning, when medical waste was found in the four lagoons at Ko Olina resort. Hours later, the waste began washing up at other nearby beaches.
On Jan. 13, unaware that landfill managers had already been diverting polluted storm water into the manhole, state health officials authorized the diversion, according to the indictment. At the time, health officials said they feared a catastrophic failure of the landfill might send a massive wall of water and garbage into the sea if they didn’t allow the storm water to be discharged into the ocean.
In the disaster’s aftermath, landfill officials tried to cover up their actions, which violated the Clean Water Act and conditions of their storm water discharge permit, the indictment states.
An official at the private Honolulu consulting firm hired by the landfill operators told state health department officials in the days after the January spill that the manhole had been closed since Dec. 23, following the initial discharges.
That April, Whelan also provided written responses to state health officials that allegedly included numerous false statements and omissions, including claims that a pump had been placed near Cell E3 to divert water in anticipation of the Dec. 19 storm and that soil had been placed over the landfill waste.
Then in August, responding to written questions from the EPA, Whelan again asserted that soil had always covered Cell E6.
“That statement was false, as Whelan and Waste Management Hawaii knew, because the tarp and not a minimum of six inches of soil was placed over the waste in Cell E6 on December 18, 2010,” states the indictment.