When Ed Werner was growing up, his backyard faced a small community park. He remembers riding dirt bikes and raising farm animals behind his family’s Nanakuli home. He could see the ridges and slopes of Puu Heleakala mountain from his back window.

Now, it’s the site of a construction and demolition landfill, PVT, and a mountain of trash.

West Oahu Land Filled Special Project Badge

Over the years, Werner has watched the dump get taller, as trucks slog up and down Farrington Highway carrying thousands of tons of waste per year. With the municipal Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill on one side of his home and PVT on the other, Werner understands why people have come to call the Westside “Oahu’s dumping ground.”

“Are we really the only town that can take all of the island’s opala (trash)?” Werner asks. “That doesn’t seem fair.”

Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill Cell
Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill is Oahu’s 200-acre municipal landfill located on the Waianae Coast. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021

Werner and many other West Oahu residents feel that they have been stuck with major public works facilities for too long. State lawmakers responded by changing the law in 2020, ruling out much of the Westside from consideration for a new landfill.

While residents are now breathing a slight sigh of relief, they are also dealing with the legacy of a landfill in their communities.

Their experience, like other communities hosting landfills, offers lessons for decision-makers to draw upon as the city embarks on another likely contentious process of siting the next landfill. With Waimanalo Gulch, the municipal landfill in Kapolei, set to close by 2028, Oahu is on a tight timeline to decide where to put the next one.

The options have already been narrowed down to four general regions (the gray areas on the map below) based on legal restrictions and buffers surrounding schools, homes, airports, tsunami zones, conservation lands, federal lands and other undevelopable lands:

  • An area west of Royal Kunia owned in part by the Monsanto Co. which encompasses the planned Honouliuli National Historic Site
  • A patch of land sitting between the Kunia Camp community and Mililani Town owned by several different LLCs, including Robinson Kunia Land
  • A large swath of land on the North Shore inland of Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, much of which is owned by Bishop Estate
  • The area encompassing Kawailoa Drive and Ashley Road just south of Waimea Falls, also owned by Bishop Estate

The Department of Environmental Services has declined to share the exact parcel numbers of the potential properties as the city continues to do its “due diligence.”

“There are still restrictions, both manufactured and geographical, still being evaluated for the parcels,” Environmental Services spokesman Markus Owens said.

Environmental Services, in charge of refuse disposal on the island, formed a Landfill Advisory Committee in early October. The citizen committee will rank the four potential sites, and Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi will make the final call.

And it all needs to happen quickly. It usually takes a decade to site, permit and develop a landfill, but Honolulu has only seven years to make it happen to meet the timeline mandated by the Hawaii Land Use Commission.

“We’re working on an aggressive timeline to get this done as quickly and as efficiently as possible with that 2028 deadline in mind,” said Michael O’Keefe, deputy director for the Department of Environmental Services.

The decision is a matter of major public investment – it’s a $210 million project – but also a question of which community will have to bear the impacts of a landfill in their backyard. Studies show people living near landfills have higher rates of cancer, birth defects and respiratory illnesses like asthma, in addition to the public perception of being a dumping ground.

There are also concerns about property values and environmental consequences of hosting a landfill nearby.

Westside residents have felt the burden of hosting public utilities that benefit the entire island. There have been landfills on the Waianae Coast since the 1940s. Before PVT, the privately owned landfill, Palailai, was located in Kapolei. The Wet ‘N’ Wild water park is there now.

Click the above image to see where and when public works facilities were built in West Oahu. 

Before Waimanalo Gulch, there was a Nanakuli landfill in roughly the same location as PVT and a Waianae landfill where the Waianae Convenience Center is now.

Along with landfills, West Oahu also hosts the state’s largest industrial park, Campbell Industrial, where the city’s waste-to-energy power plant, H-Power, burns over 700,000 tons of waste a year to produce up to 10% of the island’s electricity. The ash that’s left is dumped at Waimanalo Gulch.

Industrial facilities like these have changed how residents identify the land. Up the coast is Hawaiian Electric’s Kahe Power Plant across from a beach known as “Electrics.” There’s also a wastewater treatment plant near Waianae Mall. Locals refer to that facility’s neighboring beach as “Sewers.”

In an Oct. 4 letter to the Landfill Advisory Committee, state Sen. Kurt Fevella said his “community has felt disproportionately burdened by landfills, garbage dumps, incinerators, sewage treatment plants and a host of other polluting facilities situated on the west side of Oahu.”

“The burdens associated with solid waste management must be shared and each community (that) contributes waste must also contribute to solutions,” he said.

How The Landfills Moved Leeward

But how did the Westside get to be the “dumping ground” of Oahu’s waste and industrial plants? And what role has NIMBYism had in keeping it on that side and not in the backyards of other communities?

Before the trash disposal process we know today, trash was picked up in carriages pulled by horses, according to a history published by the Department of Environmental Services.

Before it became a popular beach spot, Ala Moana Beach Park was an open dump site. In 1931, the City filled the wetlands with dredging and constructed elaborate pavilions, courtyards and bridges over its ponds and canals. Swimming was discouraged at its opening in 1934. Hawaii State Archives/1932

A flurry of ordinances, like rules requiring separate bins for different materials, helped to keep the city more sanitary.

However, massive open dumps spotted the island. Ala Moana. Kalihi-Kai. Laie. Pupukea. Haiku. Sand Island. A boom of dumps, landfills and incinerators came in the 1940s, when the sugar industry exploded in Hawaii.

In 1964, the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce did a study on refuse in Honolulu and recommended that not only should the city hire more sanitation workers and reroute disposal maps, but also build another landfill. The California-based engineering firm Metcalf & Eddy proposed a $251 million project to kickstart recycling on the island.

To get there, the city would need to start a new incinerator and landfill. Even though there was community pushback for a new incinerator in Waipahu, it was built and the city drafted plans for a Leeward landfill in 1984.

The final choice was between two Westside sites: Ohikilolo Valley and Waimanalo Gulch.

Waianae residents objected to the Ohikilolo location because of its historical importance, and neighbors of Waimanalo Gulch opposed that location because of its proximity to Honokai Hale, the Honolulu Advertiser reported in 1984.

“We will continue to need landfills for the foreseeable future, but they are easy targets for the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ syndrome,” the paper reported.

In the end, then-Mayor Frank Fasi’s administration chose Waimanalo Gulch. Officials liked that it was more centrally located than Ohikilolo, “so it would be less expensive to haul rubbish there,” according to the Advertiser’s reporting at the time.

Even as Waimanalo Gulch was being constructed, Waianae Coast residents were voicing their opposition to it, the Advertiser reported in May 1987.

“The community really despises that whenever you come up with a landfill, it’s always on the Leeward side,” Honolulu City Councilman John DeSoto was quoted as saying at the time.

He said the project had only gotten so far because people weren’t aware of it.

“Most of the people thought Waimanalo Gulch was in Waimanalo,” he said, referring to the east side town.

After its opening in 1989, the landfill and its management, Waste Management of Hawaii, faced challenges that continued well into the next century. With multiple permit extensions and proposed expansions, Waimanalo Gulch was supposed to close in 2004 but stayed open despite two major events that would exemplify the health and environmental concerns residents already had.

In 2006, the Department of Health fined the city and Waste Management $2.8 million for multiple violations, like exceeding the landfill height limit and neglecting to report methane and leachate levels, which increases the risk of exposing the surrounding community and environment to toxins.

Then, in 2011, heavy rains caused millions of gallons of wastewater from the landfill to spill onto Kapolei beaches, where used medical supplies were spotted in the waters. The EPA immediately called for cleanup and repairs, questioning Waste Management of Hawaii’s stormwater system. In 2014, the company’s leaders were charged and pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act and conspiracy.

Prioritizing Environmental Justice

After decades of back and forth with the state’s Land Use Commission and the city’s Planning Committee, Waimanalo Gulch’s latest permit would only allow operation until 2028, as long as the city was looking for a new landfill site.

Over the years, Westside residents had been pushing back against landfills, hoping to convince legislators to change the laws so that no one has to have public works in their backyards. They finally made headway in 2019.

It started as a way to stop the expansion of the privately owned Nanakuli construction and demolition landfill, PVT. In August 2019, police officers were called to a heated Nanakuli-Maili Neighborhood Board meeting as dozens of Westside residents testified against the expansion.

Anthony Makana Paris, a Westside resident and advocate, said that community members have been testifying against PVT since its opening in 1985, not only at neighborhood board meetings but also at city landfill site selection meetings, state Land Use Commission hearings, Department of Health hearings and community gatherings.

“If the governor or mayor don’t want to deal with this issue, the community will be forced to take action,” Paris said.

And that’s what they did. Werner joined Paris at a Hawaiian Homes Commission meeting in 2019 to share the stories of families affected by illnesses purportedly linked to their proximity to PVT.

A close-up of Ed Werner with his grandson, Luxe Matthew, outside of his Nanakuli Home.
Ed Werner, with his grandson Luxe Matthew, said his family has lived in Nanakuli since the 1930s. He hopes his community can be healthier and safer for his grandchildren. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat

As site selection for Waimanalo Gulch became continually delayed, even after the Mayor’s Land Advisory Committee on Landfill Site Selection recommended five non-Westside sites for the new municipal landfill in 2012, PVT’s proposed expansion into Nanakuli felt like a slap in the face.

Community members wanted to know why one landfill would expand on the Westside when another was moving out.

In November 2019, the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs urged the state to create adequate buffer zones around landfills. Introduced by then-state Sen. Kai Kahale in the Hawaiian caucus, Senate Bill 2386 required that no landfill can be within a half-mile of a resident, school or hospital property line.

The bill gained support from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Unite Here Local 5 and Sierra Club of Hawaii, but not from the Department of Health. The department was concerned the bill would affect how current and closed landfills are maintained.

Paris, who is the president of the Prince Kuhio Hawaiian Civic Club, said that a lot of the inspiration for Act 73 came from the Mayor’s Land Advisory Committee back in 2012. The blue-ribbon committee, made up of community members from multiple locales with diverse expertise, focused on the impacts on human health.

“They prioritized environmental justice with a malama pono perspective,” Paris said.

SB 2386 was signed into law as Act 73 in September 2020, with Kahele noting that all communities have the right to healthful environments. It became a game-changer for the Department of Environmental Services and why the Westside sites for the new landfill are no longer in consideration.

“Act 73 really knocked out a tremendous amount of property on Oahu, but it also made our job a little bit easier because now, we have a law that says you cannot put a landfill here,” O’Keefe said.

It was considered a win to many that the recommended locations for the new landfill site aren’t on the Waianae Coast, but to some, the damage has already been done.

“It won’t be a win until they close,” Werner said. “Then we can really celebrate and I can kalua five pigs.”

O’Keefe said that they are required to monitor Waimanalo Gulch for decades after its closure, so the effects on public health are yet to be determined. Werner just wants to see his community get healthier and safer.

Paris and O’Keefe both believe that the focus should be on recycling and not another legacy landfill. That maybe it doesn’t have to be in anyone’s backyard if residents produce less waste and H Power can send less ash.

“Our overarching goal in our solid waste management program is to use the landfill as little as possible,” O’Keefe said.

The Path To 2028

The Landfill Advisory Committee started meeting this month. It plans to have seven meetings before June 2022.

The Limtiaco Consulting Group, a local civil and environmental engineering company, will facilitate meetings, and the Omaha-based engineering firm HDR will assist with technical studies, according to the Department of Environmental Services.

Throughout the process, the committee will receive input from those consultants as well as city officials and the public.

Ultimately, the members will score the potential landfill sites anonymously, based on criteria that haven’t yet been publicly shared. The scores will then be sent to Environmental Services Director Wesley Yokoyama and Blangiardi.

A subsequent environmental impact statement will consider alternative sites and cultural, archaeological and biological impacts, and officials are aiming for construction to begin in October 2024, according to Limtiaco.

The new landfill should open by March 2028, the deadline issued by the state Land Use Commission.

How to make your voice heard

“We all recognize that 2028 is an aggressive date,” said John Katahira, the principal of Limtiaco. “But it’s the date that we’ve been dealt, so we’re going to do our best to meet that.”

At October’s meeting, LAC member James Nakatani, who is also the executive director of the Hawaii Agribusiness Development Corp., asked whether Honolulu could offer the neighbors of the new landfill something in return for their burden.

He noted there is such a program on Kauai. The county council there established the Kekaha Host Community Benefits Fund in 2008 with $650,000 to compensate the community for hosting the island’s landfill. The funds have been spent on several dozen community projects, according to the fund’s website, including athletic camps, community gardens and food distributions.

Honolulu established its own $2 million Leeward Coast Community Benefits program in 2006 to help offset the impact of having the Waimanalo Gulch landfill nearby. The money supported park improvement projects, youth programming, and homeless services, among other causes.

The city is already considering a community benefit of some sort, according to city planner Josh Nagashima — either monetary compensation or developing some community resources for them.

Nakatani said it’s worth exploring.

“Nobody wants a landfill in their backyard,” he said.

This report was made possible in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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