It has been almost a year since Honolulu requested a two-year extension for finding a replacement site for Waimanalo Gulch.

The Honolulu Planning Commission heard arguments Wednesday about whether the city should receive an extension in its search for a new landfill site. However, a decision was delayed until a meeting next month.

“We will continue on with this portion of the meeting on Nov. 1,” commission chair Pane Meatoga III said at the end of the hearing.

The city was supposed to have an alternative site picked by the end of December but instead requested a two-year extension to 2024. Almost one year has passed since then, and the Planning Commission still has not given its official approval or denial. 

Mayor Rick Blangiardi, right, accompanied by Roger Babcock, Director of Environmental Services, informed the press in December that several hurdles needed to be overcome in picking a new landfill site. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

The debate and further delay underscored the challenge in finding a replacement location for Waimanalo Gulch, located near Ko Olina in West Oahu. The state requires this site – Oahu’s only municipal landfill – to close by 2028.

Wednesday was the commission’s second hearing on the subject after an initial one on Aug. 9.

City officials have said negotiations are occurring with the military to use federal land, particularly amid concerns about protecting the island’s main aquifer for drinking water in the wake of the Navy’s Red Hill water contamination crisis.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi told Civil Beat in September that six potential sites had been rejected and “the only place to go is with the military, because I don’t think we’re going to get ag land.”

Director of Environmental Services Roger Babcock, who oversees the city’s waste management systems, echoed that same point during the hearing.

“We’re currently pursuing federal lands as our main effort,” said Babcock. This is because of several limits. 

In 2020, the state government outlawed new landfills from being constructed within half a mile of schools, hospitals, and residences through Act 73. In April 2022 the city’s appointed advisory commission rejected six candidate sites due to concerns about contaminating Oahu’s water supply.

The result is a complex, island-wide venn diagram of places where a landfill cannot go. 

Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill Dirt Truck
The Waimanalo Gulch landfill on the West Side of Oahu is nearing the end of its special use permit, which allows it to operate on land zoned by the state for agriculture. The state Land Use Commission said in 2019 that this site must be closed by 2028. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021)

Certain federal lands could be viable though. During the hearing, Babcock listed a few examples: Lualualei, farther up the west side; Iroquois Point, near Ewa Beach; Waipio peninsula, jutting off Waipahu into Pearl Harbor; Bellows Air Force base, in Waimanalo. 

He is not personally involved in the discussions though, he said.

In a phone call, Blangiardi said the reason for this is because it streamlines communication. He said that Babcock will be brought in once a viable site is picked, and that is still in the works. In the meantime, Babcock is not being excluded, said Blangiardi. 

“Roger’s more than in the loop. I often introduce Roger Babcock as the smartest guy in the state when it comes to anything involving water,” said Blangiardi. Babcock was and still is a large part of their internal conversations regarding the new landfill site, he said.

The mayor declined to give specifics about the status of or a timeline pertaining to his negotiations with the military. “We’re pushing as hard as anybody can,” he said.

The city has been discussing a new landfill location for years. It has been using the current spot, at Waimanalo Gulch, since 1989.

That spot has had its issues. Though the islands’ leeward sides are known to be relatively dry, heavy rain spilled trash into the ocean in early 2011, pushing bacteria levels hundreds of times above the recognized healthy limit. 

Wednesday’s arguments included a run-through of Waimanalo Gulch’s timeline of existence, a rollercoaster of closure deadlines and subsequent extensions. (Screenshot/2023)

And many nearby residents worry about the cumulative health impacts of living so close to the garbage. During the summer, City Council Chair Tommy Waters introduced a bill that would exempt residents who live within a mile of a construction and demolition landfill from paying property taxes. On Oahu, the only landfill of this specific type is PVT Landfill in Nanakuli, just up the coast from Waimanalo Gulch.

Bill 39 passed multiple hearings but stalled in September. While dozens of individuals submitted supportive testimony, a couple of nearby neighborhood boards – Waianae and Nanakuli-Mailiwere opposed. They objected to the financial incentives this would create, saying it might make the properties more attractive for investors and inadvertently help cause more landfills to open on the Leeward Coast. 

In the meantime, the city is still working to find a new site, and the Planning Commission is still deciding whether to grant the city its requested extension.

The opposition, which includes Ko Olina Community Association and Leeward Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, said that the city has received numerous extensions over the years, while the city said that picking a new site is challenging considering the legal limitations.

The next commission meeting will be at 1 p.m. on Nov. 1.

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