HILO, Hawaii Island — Besides volcanic emissions and little fire ants, another undesirable East Hawaii export is heading to the Big Island’s leeward side: truckloads of trash.

“We expect that probably by next November … the majority of refuse that will be going to Hilo will be going to West Hawaii,” said Greg Goodale, Hawaii County’s Solid Waste Division chief.

That’s a 75-mile trip, each way, for up to 200 tons of trash. Eight times a day.

A Hawaii County solid waste truck leaves Wednesday from the Hilo transfer station en route to the adjacent landfill. Starting in November 2018, a new fleet of trucks will begin hauling East Hawaii’s garbage 75 miles to the island’s other dump located near Waikoloa luxury resorts. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat/2017

Long-hauling to Puuanahulu is Mayor Harry Kim’s solution for handling East Hawaii’s waste stream once the Hilo landfill reaches a maximum height dictated by the nearby airport and must be closed.

The permitted capacity is expected to be reached within two years, according to the draft environmental assessment of the closure action that the county filed Oct. 11 with the state Department of Health.

Expanding or replacing the existing unlined landfill could present “insurmountable obstacles,” which is why “based on our planning level cost estimates, trucking and disposal of waste at the existing West Hawaii Sanitary Landfill provides a potentially feasible and more cost effective disposal alternative,” states a report Wilson Okamoto Corp. prepared for the county.

Building a dump isn’t cheap, and neither is closing one.

The draft EA estimates a $19 million price tag for shuttering the Hilo landfill. Building a trash incinerator would have cost taxpayers an estimated $125.5 million, more than any project in county history, according to a 2008 proposal Kim floated during his first stint as mayor.

The County Council rejected it as being too expensive. Big Island electricity rates, based largely on the price of oil and a key financing component of the proposed incinerator, then tanked, and the idea has not been seriously pursued since.

Adding to the cost of closing the Hilo dump is a federal mandate to monitor and maintain the site for 30 years or risk large fines. Although the county’s environmental analysis doesn’t estimate that additional cost, it notes that successfully completing the post-closure requirements would leave the former landfill suitable for such uses as a “photovoltaic farm or passive trails for recreation.”

Residential household trash will still be accepted at the Hilo transfer station following closure of the landfill. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat/2017

One of the biggest objections to trucking trash across the island has been the traffic impact. Strong public opposition was expressed when the idea was brought up during the past decade as the county delayed the landfill’s closure by packing trash along its sides to steepen the massive mound without expanding its footprint.

“The question is really: Who likes the plan?” businessman Gunner Mench said of driving eight fully loaded trucks daily to the island’s only other landfill, located a few miles from its biggest cluster of luxury resorts.

Mench lives in Waimea, which had been on the trucking route. That changed Oct. 10, one day before the county filed its draft EA, when the final phase of the 41-mile, $316.5-million widening and realignment of Saddle Road was opened. The old Saddle Road was narrow and had numerous blind hills, making it potentially dangerous for large trucks. Rental companies prohibited use of their vehicles on the road.

The renamed Daniel K. Inouye Highway offers miles of passing lanes, a 60-mph speed limit and an undeveloped landscape. This is the route the trucks will take.

The modern highway has hazards, however.

The refuse haulers must first climb 5,000 feet above sea level, then descend 7 miles on a grade that reaches 7 percent and offers only one runaway truck ramp. At the bottom they will reach a “T” intersection forcing drivers to stop when turning left or to merge a sharp right when heading toward the landfill.

“You don’t take major highways and just have them end up at a stop sign,” said Mench, who chaired the county-affiliated South Kohala Traffic Safety Committee before health reasons forced him to step down last year.

Although the highway’s western terminus has only been in existence for a few years, at least two commercial truckers have died there. In May, a Schofield Barracks solder lost control of the military tractor-trailer truck he was driving. The crash killed a fellow soldier.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” Mench said. “It’s just terrible.”

The state Department of Transportation recently announced that Hawaii County topped the state in the number of motor vehicle deaths recorded this year from Jan. 1 to Oct. 15.

Mench, who questions why the county can’t build a new landfill in East Hawaii given the region’s vast open tracts of land, has reluctantly accepted the trucking reality.

“They’ve boxed themselves so that’s the only solution they have – other than dumping it in the ocean,” he said of the county. “I don’t like it, but right now it’s the only alternative.”

Ducks navigate storm runoff from the unlined Hilo landfill, which Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim wants closed when it reaches maximum height in the next two years. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat/2017

After navigating the intersection, the long-haul garbage trucks will descend farther through the town of Waikoloa, the only populated area along the route. A roughly half-mile, four-lane road with a posted 35-mph speed limit skirts Waikoloa.

Area residents are concerned about increased traffic and rubbish that could result from trucking garbage through their community, said Roger Wehrsig, general manager of the Waikoloa Village Homeowners Association.

They can expect eight trucks a day, said Goodale, the county’s solid waste chief.

He anticipates starting with 150 tons daily in November 2018, then increasing to 200 tons – the current volume at the Hilo landfill – around mid-2019 when the dump closes.

Those volumes are reached after diverting 28 to 30 percent from the waste stream, Goodale said of efforts such as turning trees, grass clippings and other green waste into mulch.

“Obviously we’re going to continue to pull materials out at the sort station that can be recycled,” he said of the large warehouse-type building located near the Hilo landfill. Its design allows trash trucks, including those that private commercial haulers operate, to dump their loads onto a concrete floor.

Workers then sift through the garbage to determine which materials are recycled and, starting in a year, which materials are hauled across Hawaii’s largest island.

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