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ANALYSIS: Six Myths About County’s Waste Incineration Plan

July 9, 2014, 4:43 PM HST (Updated July 9, 2014, 5:24 PM)
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The battle is on over the future of solid waste on the Big Island.

Mayor Billy Kenoi’s ambitious plan to build a solid waste incinerator in fewer than 30 months is fresh on the table and at least one Hawaii County Council member, Margaret Wille, already wants to throw it out and start over.

But Kenoi can’t afford any delays if he’s to meet his self-imposed end-of-term deadline, which leads to a rush-rush approval process with little time to mull over the product he’s selling.

So while the plan unfolds, here’s a little guidance to some popular misconceptions.

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MYTH: Getting energy from our rubbish is a great idea.

REALITY: It might be if the utility would buy it. But Maui County couldn’t strike a deal to sell any energy to Maui Electric Co. for the same reasons Hawaii County may have difficulties striking a deal with Hawaii Electric Light Co. — a glut of available energy sources and reluctance to take old oil-fired plants offline. So instead of electricity, Maui’s proposed new incinerator will produce natural gas and refuse-derived fuel, pellets that can be burned to produce energy elsewhere, though markets for pellets are limited.

MYTH: There’s plenty of rubbish to burn on the Big Island.

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REALITY: In order to get enough rubbish to burn efficiently in the Hilo incinerator, the county would take rubbish that’s now going to Puuanahulu and haul it to Hilo. That would put a costly dent in the amount of rubbish going to Puuanahulu, where the county is contractually obligated to pay higher tipping fees as volume drops, raising the cost per ton at Puuanahulu by as much as 35%. The mayor’s proposal also doesn’t account for a private developer’s plan to build a waste-to-energy plant in West Hawaii that would burn rubbish collected from its existing residential and commercial clients.

MYTH: An incinerator won’t cost taxpayers anything because a large company will pay for its construction and operation.

REALITY: The large company will charge a tipping fee for each ton the county delivers to the incinerator. That’s where the company recoups its investment in the incinerator — plus profit — over the 20- to 30-year term of the contract. In 2008, the county would have been on the hook for $11.5 million dollars a year if the council had OK’d Mayor Harry Kim’s plan for a $125.5 million incinerator, and that was only if the county sold $7 million worth of electricity it produced each year. Kenoi’s proposed new incinerator is about 30% larger than the one Kim proposed.

MYTH: We will need an incinerator when the Hilo landfill finally gets full.

REALITY: The county owns another landfill at Puuanahulu, a licensed facility that’s good to accept rubbish at its current rate for 30 years, and hauling rubbish to Puuanahulu has been shown to be the most inexpensive of all the county’s feasible alternatives by far. Cost savings could be used to promote aggressive waste reduction, reuse and recycling programs that could cut the amount of waste needed to be put in the landfill.

MYTH: The county can avoid hauling rubbish from East Hawaii to West Hawaii.

REALITY: Some West Hawaii residents are so emotionally opposed to Hilo rubbish coming their way that former Councilman Pete Hoffmann famously vowed to lie down in front of the trucks. Councilwoman Brenda Ford simply said she didn’t want Hilo’s trash in West Hawaii. Mayor Kenoi just said it’s “off the table.” The local newspaper has reported “opposition,” and has called hauling “controversial” and “politically unpalatable.” Yet no one has articulated any reasons for their opposition. Hauling would utilize a county-owned landfill at Puuanahulu to save Big Island taxpayers many millions of dollars of unnecessary expense to build an incinerator. There needs to be a better explanation to justify the opposition to that. After all, even if the Council approves the mayor’s proposed incinerator, trucks will be hauling the ash that’s left in the incinerator from Hilo to West Hawaii on a daily basis anyway.

MYTH: Studies support building an incinerator.

REALITY: This plan is Mayor Kenoi’s vision and represents a departure from the recommendations in county Department of Environment Management documents such as the Integrated Resources and Solid Waste Management Plan (2009), Hilo Landfill Feasibility Study (2012), and Hauling Pilot Study (2012), which identify hauling as the most feasible, cost-effective solution to the looming problem of where to put the county’s rubbish when the Hilo landfill closes.

Big Island Now staff writer Hunter Bishop is a former executive assistant to Mayor Billy Kenoi and former deputy director of the Department of Environmental Management.

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