Driving down Farrington Highway along the Leeward Coast two things are unavoidable: large trucks hauling construction debris and homemade signs protesting their destination, the PVT construction and debris landfill in Nanakuli.

“Most of the residents on the west coast are Native Hawaiians and don’t want them taking over more of the land,” said 31-year-old Jeff Voa, who is raising his five children with his wife at the base of Pu’u Haleakala, a peak in Nanakuli that offers sweeping views of the town.

Voa’s house abuts an empty field where the PVT Land Co. hopes to expand its landfill operation. Voa says that while an increase in trucks and noise from the landfill would be annoying, he’s more concerned about the landfill’s impact on Pu’u Heleakala, which holds an important place in Hawaiian culture and legend.

“When I take my kids up the mountain we have to look across PVT,” he said. “And OK, we appreciate PVT for what they do, and I work in construction, but we don’t want the landfill here.”

The Voa Family regularly climbs Pu’u Heleakala and doesn’t want the landfill to extend any closer to the base of the mountain. Courtesy: Jeff Voa

Civil Beat’s environmental podcast has received a number of questions about how PVT’s expansion could affect the health of local residents, and we received even more questions after the Hawaii Legislature passed a bill requiring a half-mile buffer zone between landfills and houses, schools or hospitals. The latest episode of  “Are We Doomed?” takes a tour of the PVT landfill and talks to local residents about land use along the Leeward Coast.

A Growing Footprint

The PVT landfill started accepting construction and debris waste in 1985, and in recent years the company has been digging up sections of the landfill to extract recyclable material buried in the past.

PVT’s permit allows them to accept up to 2,000 tons of construction and demolition debris a day and up to 500 tons of asbestos-contaminated waste per week. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2020

But the company says it’s still going to reach capacity in the next 5 years.

“We recycle about 80% of everything that comes in here,” said Steve Joseph, vice-president of the PVT Land Co. “And we’re still going to fill up.”

Albert Shigemura, president of PVT Land Co. said if Gov. David Ige signs the buffer zone bill into law, the landfill would shut down. Ige has not said whether he plans to veto or sign the bill, and must notify lawmakers about his intention by Aug. 31.

“A half-mile buffer zone would make our operation area so small that it wouldn’t be practical,” Shigemura said. “If there’s going to be any building on the island, you need a construction landfill.”

PVT Land Co. wants to expand its operation from 160 acres to a 180-acre parcel across the street, onto land the company already owns. But the expansion plan has faced significant pushback. Some residents say the constant noise from trucks lowers property values. Others worry about potential health impacts.

Community Concerns

Multiple studies on the U.S. mainland and around the world have found that people living near landfills suffer higher rates of cancer, birth defects, respiratory illnesses like asthma and disorders like ADHD.

But local studies haven’t singled out the PVT landfill as an environmental hazard.

In 2005 a human health risk assessment in Nanakuli concluded that there was “no significant risk to the surrounding community from disposal of contaminated soil.” Another in 2010 analyzed particulate matter and found that PVT’s recycling operations “will not pose a significant risk to the surrounding neighbors with effective dust controls.”

Signs protesting the PVT landfill are common in Nanakuli. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2020

The following year the Department of Health commissioned another study that said while PVT was a source of dust in the area, the amount of particulate matter in the air did not exceed health-based standards. Since dust was an ongoing concern of residents the study recommended PVT and DOH take measures to reduce the amount of dust from the landfill.

In response, PVT installed large dust screens along its property line. Landfill workers spray water to reduce the amount of dust flying into the air and monitor air quality on the property.

Coal Ash

Lucy Gay, a 75-year-old Native Hawaiian activist and educator, appreciates the efforts PVT has taken to reduce the amount of dust from its site.

“They’ve been very deliberate and conscientious about addressing the issues recommended in the dust study,” she said.

Gay, a leader with the Concerned Elders of Waianae, is a hard woman to win over. In past years the group of kupuna has effectively halted the creation of a new industrial park in Nanakuli and even fought against a proposal for municipal waste to be brought to the PVT landfill.

She’s upset that some anti-landfill activists continue to cite health concerns as a reason to petition against the landfill.

“Experts came out into the community to do these dust studies but instead people cite studies from far away when we had studies right here in our neighborhood,” she said.

Nanakuli resident Jean Teo-Gibney has been protesting, writing letters, testifying and organizing against landfills in the area for years.

“Our homes were there before they were there,” she said. “This is where we live and breathe and now on the other side of the fence is trash.”

Teo-Gibney said the landfill should have never been opened in the first place because of its proximity to residential homes, especially in a low-income area.

“The working class people out here are struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table,” she said. “We’re so busy and tired that we can’t fight back or have a say in how our land is used.”

It’s the socioeconomic impact of the landfill that concerns 19-year-old Kamahoi Dillion more than anything else.

“Take a look around: they’re not real lavish houses,” he said. “No one wants to live next to a landfill.”

If Not Here, Where?

“It’s not some evil plot,” said Joseph, PVT’s vice president. “You need to put landfills on the west side because that’s where it’s driest.”

Rain increases the risk of materials in an open landfill contaminating streams, rivers, soil and beaches. The west side of every Hawaiian island receives the least amount of rainfall, and most landfills in the state are built on the leeward coasts.

Another reason the PVT landfill was approved is because it sits above brackish water. If the landfill did leak, drinking water aquifers wouldn’t be impacted.

But that argument doesn’t sway Kawika Kane, who has lived in the area for 40 years.

“There’s a million people on the island and all their trash is coming to one community. It’s not fair,” he said.

About 72% of Nanakuli residents are Native Hawaiian and the Waianae Coast has one of the highest proportions of Native Hawaiians anywhere in the world, according to census data. The PVT landfill neighbors the Princess Kahanu and Nanakuli Homesteads, where life expectancy is about 10 years lower than the state’s average.

Lauren Ballesteros-Watanabe, program manager of Oahu’s Sierra Club, said the landfill is an example of environmental racism because a community of color is bearing the negative side effects of an industry that everyone on the island benefits from.

“The location of a landfill so close to homes when many community members are so opposed is a clear failure of policy,” she said.

Even if the landfill itself isn’t affecting the health of local residents, the large trucks hauling heavy material through Nanakuli certainly are. According to the EPA, sustained exposure to vehicle emissions damages a person’s neurological, cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive and immune systems.

“I think the west side of the island did its part over the decades,” Kane said. “It’s time for other areas to do their part for our island community.”

“Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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