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OPINION: Talking Trash, Hilo’s Garbage Woes Part 2

Posted May 3, 2012, 03:42 PM HST
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File photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes, politics stinks. The east Hawaii landfill faces closure soon, and election year infighting is giving voters every reason to hold their nose.

As mentioned in the preceding article on this topic, Big Island mayor Billy Kenoi has been busy fending off accusations of deception after it was discovered that trucks from Hilo were hauling trash across the island to the Pu`uanahulu landfill in west Hawaii.

The mayor’s chief election year rival, councilman Dominic Yagong, wants to stop the county from diverting east Hawaii trash to Pu`uanahulu. Yagong now has an opportunity to ride a wave of anger against the mayor, and bury the county’s ability to use the west Hawaii landfill as a back-up plan when the Hilo facility reaches maximum capacity.

Yagong’s proposed solution is to construct a new landfill in the rock quarry adjacent to the existing Hilo site, which is expected to close within the next 5 years.

Sending tons of east Hawaii junk on a cross-island joy ride is understandably an unpopular idea, but the council may want to take a peek inside a recent report published by R.W. Beck at taxpayer’s expense before throwing the trash hauling option away entirely.

The R.W. Beck study describes several obstacles the county could face if it decides to go ahead with a new landfill. Getting legal road access to the site is one challenge, as the existing road to the Hilo facility runs through Hawaiian Home Lands without official authorization. A proposed new route is in trouble, having depended on a state project to extend Leilani and Lanikaula streets that has been suspended.

Hilo’s abundant rainfall would also be a problem, causing copious amounts of leachate (toxic runoff) that would have to be collected in treatment pools known as wetlands. It is unclear how man-made wetlands would affect the surrounding Department of Hawaiian Home Lands farm lots. The state Department of Health may require the county to use its waste water treatment facilities as a backup, but current water treatment equipment cannot handle the task. In fact, the county already faces challenges keeping waste water toxicity within acceptable levels.

The Federal Aviation Administration also has skin in the game, requiring new landfills to be placed at least 6 miles from public airports. The proposed new site may violate that boundary, and it is unclear whether it will slip under the FAA’s radar by being classified as an extension of an existing landfill.

Most exciting of all is the nearby pistol and rifle training area at the Keaukaha Military Reservation. As the R.W. Beck report notes, the National Guard’s live firing area points in the direction of the proposed landfill. The Hawaii Department of Defense voiced concern, saying the location of the new site would “raise the safety bar” for live firing.

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If nothing else, that should encourage recycling.

Each of these obstacles might be overcome with enough time and persistence, but forcing the county to race its way to a new landfill could prove to be a fool’s errand.

Ironically, our county government is closer than ever before to a sustainable long term solution for waste disposal. Recycling efforts have succeeded in diverting over one third of Big Island trash away from landfills, and a long idle east Hawaii sort station may boost that number greatly when it is finally put to use.

Costing over $9 million, the east Hawaii sorting facility is the subject of another battle between mayor Kenoi and councilman Yagong. The mayor has proposed a county-run facility, while Yagong advocates private-public partnerships. One potential private bidder, Pacific Waste, claims it could cut the volume of garbage entering the landfill by 70% in its first year of operation, at no cost to the county.

Kenoi enjoys strong support from unions going into the fall election, and his insistence on using county workers at the new sort station led Yagong to accuse the mayor of making a politically motivated decision.

Election year posturing shouldn’t take priority over a common sense solution. Get the sort station up and running as quickly and cheaply as possible. Remove and recycle every scrap of trash that can be, and truck the minimum amount of waste necessary to Pu`uanahulu. This would be a responsible way to buy time until a new facility can be built.

As a last resort, it may make sense to move the offices of the council and mayor to pop-up tents next to the Hilo landfill until a practical plan for waste disposal is achieved. This would provide a sense of urgency to those dragging their feet, and serve as a daily reminder that using trash to play politics just plain stinks.

See R.W. Beck report here.

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