Facing a year-end deadline for a decision on a controversial landfill, city officials announced Friday that they had decided to seek a two-year extension on the timeline while they look for a replacement location.

The city will make the request to the Honolulu Planning Commission.

Friday’s delay is the newest twist in a decades-long saga as Honolulu residents grapple with the problem of where to stash their ever-growing mounds of debris. Everybody needs landfills but nobody wants them near them.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi and Roger Babcock, Director of Environmental Services, outlined the multiple obstacles the city faces in trying to find a replacement location for Waimanalo Gulch at a press conference Friday. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

At a press conference, Mayor Rick Blangiardi and Roger Babcock, director of the Department of Environmental Services, said that the city needs more time to deliberate, to negotiate with state officials and to investigate other options.

“Considering what is at stake,” said Blangiardi, “we believe it’s clear that asking for more time to find an equitable and practical solution is the way forward.”

Blangiardi said he is committed to finding a new landfill location.

Waimanalo Gulch, located near Ko Olina in West Oahu, is Honolulu’s only municipal landfill, a place where tons of garbage is incinerated each year, but leaving behind a mountain of ash.  In 1987, the facility covered 61 acres but it has spread to more than 116 acres.

Leeward Coast residents have long resented being, literally, the dumping ground for undesirable public facilities, including power generation and garbage. Their concerns were heightened after 2010, when landfill managers allowed trash to flow into the ocean during a storm. Medical waste, including used syringes and vials of blood, washed up onto the beach.

They have pressed city and state officials to look elsewhere, vehemently protesting and calling the landfill an unsightly burden and a health hazard.

Blangiardi acknowledged that feelings have run high on the west side about what residents there feel is an historic injustice in forcing them to house the island’s debris.

“There’s a lot of emotion,” he said, noting that the decision is important to the city, but also to “people on the Leeward Coast.”

The Waimanalo Gulch Landfill has been living on borrowed time since 2019, when the state Land Use Commission granted the city’s permit application to continue using the landfill but told city officials they had to shut it down by 2028.

Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill Dirt Truck

Area residents want the Waimanalo Gulch landfill, pictured here in 2021, to be removed.

At the press conference, Babcock laid out the numerous regulatory and environmental barriers they face in trying to make a selection that will have the least negative impact. The city needs to find a 90-acre parcel with a buffer around it, totalling about 150 acres.

Sites that large are hard to find, the officials said.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply has warned that placing the landfill atop a groundwater aquifer could pose a further threat to the island’s water supply, which makes many sites in the interior of the island problematic. The Legislature, meanwhile, passed a law in 2020, Act 73, saying landfills cannot be located in conservation zones or within a half mile of a residential, school or hospital property.

Federal land could be an option but would probably require an act of Congress for approval.

Shoreline areas are also excluded because of the tsunami risk.

In September 2021, Blangiardi appointed a landfill advisory committee to review the sites but the group rejected all six of the proposed sites, saying that each posed a danger of contaminating the island’s drinking water.

City officials said they will reach out for further discussions with state and federal officials.

“We have limitations on our island … but somewhere there is a solution,” Blangiardi said.

The planning commission is a city board that provides advice on land-use decisions. Planning commissioners are volunteers appointed by the mayor.

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