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OPINION: Wasting Time with Waste

July 28, 2012, 8:28 AM HST
* Updated July 31, 9:21 AM
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Billy Kenoi isn’t lacking for common sense, but he needs a better sense of timing.

Our poor mayor has been locked in a smelly scrimmage with the Hawaii County Council over what to do with Hilo’s increasingly large pile of junk, and the seemingly inevitable closure of the east Hawaii landfill. Unfortunately, despite his well-intentioned attempts at a solution, Kenoi can’t seem to keep his foot from finding its way back to his mouth.

When it comes to waste management issues, mayor Kenoi seems to be a gaffe-magnet. Image courtesy US Department of Justice.

Earlier this year at a public event in Kona, Kenoi insisted that he had no plan to truck Hilo’s rubbish to west Hawaii. Days later, the forehead-slapping revelation was made that east Hawaii trash had already been making the journey westward for months.

The council, led by chairman (and mayoral candidate) Dominic Yagong, pounced on Kenoi’s goof, and voted 8-0 in May of this year to ban the county from trucking east Hawaii rubbish to the west Hawaii landfill at Pu`uanahulu. As mentioned in a previous Big Island Now article, the Hilo rubbish dump faces closure in the next few years, and with few solutions available, all that east Hawaii junk will have to go somewhere.

But, never mind that. Some members of the council have never been shy about tossing logic out of the window, especially if it’s getting in the way of them pandering for votes.

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Being at the helm of a reeking, listing ship is no fun task, and Kenoi has naturally been under pressure to at least act like he has a plan. On July 18th of this year, the mayor performed a little political archaeology, digging up the long-buried proposal to build a trash incinerator in east Hawaii. The council of course had killed a similar proposal in 2008, but Kenoi seems intent on recycling that effort.

A municipal waste incinerator in operation. Image courtesy US Environmental Protection Agency.

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The mayor cited Oahu’s 46 megawatt H-Power facility as his inspiration, and explained that he believed an incinerator was a cheaper, cleaner alternative than a new landfill, or even trash hauling.

Fast forward a week later, and the mayor is being blindsided by the same rubbish trucks that got him into trouble in the first place. The Department of Environmental Management on Wednesday presented a study showing that trucking rubbish to west Hawaii was dramatically cheaper than either a new landfill or trash incinerator.

While a waste-to-energy facility could cost anywhere from $80 to $210 per ton of rubbish burned, a new landfill would cost the county between $92 to $110 per ton. By comparison, hauling all of the Big Island’s trash to Pu`uanahulu would cost somewhere between $52 and $72 per ton, according to the study.

Waste Management Inc. owns the Pu`uanahulu landfill. Image courtesy Palomar College.

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And as it turns out, the more trash we haul, the cheaper it gets. Waste Management Inc., who owns the west Hawaii landfill, discounts the disposal fees the county pays as the daily load of waste being dumped at Pu`uanahulu increases. The site has an estimated 30 years of useful life (not including an added burden from east Hawaii), and the state owns land near the landfill that could be used for possible expansion in the future.

Hauling reeking piles of Hilo’s garbage to Pu’uanahulu may not be popular with west Hawaii residents, but even the best recycling efforts will still leave the ever-filling Hilo landfill facing closure. Short of backyard burials, east Hawaii will soon be up a smelly creek.

Ideally, politicians are capable of doing the “right thing” even when it doesn’t bring them votes. The council could of course cut the mayor some slack, and choose to send trash to Pu`uanahulu until a long term solution is worked out.

That would be the common sense approach. Sadly, given their track record, it would also be a miracle.

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