Hawai`i County Struggles to Avoid Need to Close South Hilo Landfill

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By the year 2000, the state Department of Health wants to have all unlined landfills in Hawai`i closed. That goal stands in contrast to plans of Hawai`i County, which has asked the Health Department to renew its permit to operate its unlined South Hilo Landfill through the year 2003.

The existing permit for the Hilo landfill will expire October 9, which is the deadline set by a federal requirement intended to close down landfills operating within 10,000 feet of runways used by turbojets. (The Hilo fill lies within this zone.) Unprepared to close the landfill by then, the county has asked the Department of Health to operate the landfill for five more years.

According to John Harder, the state solid waste coordinator, the Department of Health has agreed tentatively to renew the permit — but just for two years. If the county wants to operate the landfill beyond that, it will need to “prove its case” to the Department of Health and the public. And, he adds, that probably “would be difficult to do.”

Still, he says, “if the public comes up and says, ‘we don’t care about our environment — give them five more years,’ what am I supposed to do? There’s no law that says they can’t get five years. There are policies — common-sense policies, but in reality, elected officials essentially do what [the public] tells them to do.”

* * *
Prologue to RCRA

Actually, laws governing waste disposal exist — laws intended primarily to keep hazardous waste out of municipal fills. The fundamental one is the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, passed by Congress in 1976.

Giving rise to the legislation were highly publicized incidents where extensive pollution resulted from the dumping of industrial wastes into unregulated landfills. For example, in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, groundwater pollution was traced in 1973 to a landfill that had been receiving large quantities of chemical wastes. In the same state, contamination of a creek and a lake was tracked to the illegal disposal of up to 6,000 gallons of oil and petroleum chemicals in a landfill one-and-a-half miles distant.

Near Seattle, after a landfill had accepted industrial and hospital wastes for more than a decade, leachate from the fill contaminated Mason Creek, fostering the growth of slime mold, killing salmon eggs and fry at a state hatchery.

These incidents and many more were made a part of the legislative history of RCRA. Since its passage, RCRA has been the motivating force behind efforts nationwide to close potentially dangerous landfills or make them safer.

“Regulations and operation standards for landfills have changed significantly over the last few decades,” Harder says. “Things have gone into landfills in the past, things we have no record of, because accurate records weren’t kept. Up until the late 1980s, maybe even the early 1990s, in some of the rural landfills, whole junk cars went into landfills, including batteries, gas tanks full of gas, crank cases full of oil. Up until the late 1980s, whole drums of chemicals went into those landfills.”

Hilo History

On March 19, 1969, Governor John Burns signed an executive order setting aside 35.4 acres of state land near the Hilo airport for use by the County of Hawai`i as a dump. Thirteen years later, the county acquired a lease on 60 acres of adjoining state-owned land. The lease is to expire on December 31, 2002. The Hilo landfill thus occupies altogether about 100 acres of land.

Although the state permit under which the landfill is allowed to operate bars the county from receiving any hazardous waste, there’s no question that this has been done.

In July 1992, for example, about 250 cubic yards of arsenic-contaminated soil, cleaned up after a spill two years earlier at a wood-treating facility, was buried in a trench at the landfill. (For more on this, see the September edition of Environment Hawai`i.)

In 1991, a former employee of a county-contracted metal recycler accused the owner, Larry Poffenroth, of having ordered the dumping at night of tens of thousands of gallons of engine oil, radiator coolant, and gasoline in both county landfills at Kona and Hilo. Poffenroth acknowledged having illegally vented Freon from car air conditioning systems, but denied having dumped anything else.

In June 1993, the Department of Health issued a cease-and-desist order to Poffenroth’s firm, Cal-Pacific, Inc., when the company did not respond to Harder’s questions about its dumping practices. Coincidentally, Cal-Pacific’s contract ended on June 30, 1993. Its contract was not renewed.

So far, testing of groundwater wells drilled around the landfill has turned up found metal contamination by arsenic, copper, and silver, but not at levels exceeding the maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Vanadium is also present; no MCL exists for that metal, however.

Harder commented on the low levels of contaminants, saying they could be “due to lack of mobility of the material in the landfill, due to the fact that there’s stuff in the process of rusting out and has not yet been released, or it could be due to the possibility that, in Hilo, the amount of rainfall and the amount of groundwater movement underneath the landfill is so great it dilutes everything so much you don’t even see it. It’s probably due to all these things. We see no indication of contamination at levels that the EPA requires tests for.”

Still, given the landfill’s history, the lack of a protective liner, Hilo’s frequent and often heavy rains, and the site’s extremely permeable soil, closure is inevitable.

* * *

RCRA Rules

To implement RCRA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted rules in October 1991, specifying proper landfill operation, design, groundwater monitoring, closure, and assurance of financial ability to conduct the long-term monitoring and maintenance activities associated with post-closure operations.

Two years later, the state Department of Health adopted its own rules that closely follow RCRA rules. Omitted from state rules was the EPA’s requirement that new landfills or expansions of existing ones would need to meet the new standards — specifically, that they had to be lined and that leachate collection systems be installed (to collect the liquid that seeps down through the landfill and is caught by the liner). Some exceptions were made in state rules for existing facilities. While they would be required to meet new operational standards (placement of cover on dumped material, monitoring of dumpers to prevent hazardous waste, and the like), they were not required to meet specific design requirements of new landfills.

As Harder explains, the state rules were intended “to allow some kind of phase-in, phase-out process” for existing facilities. “They were not to allow existing landfills to operate for ever and ever.”

The state rules were attached as “special conditions” to the March 1992 permit renewal for the Hilo landfill. The county was given until October 9, 1993, to comply with the rules. The permit also required the county, within six months, to inform the state of its plans concerning “the remaining life of the landfill and what subparts of federal regulations the landfill will be subject to. A timetable and the plans of the county to meet the requirements shall be explained.”

Also in 1992, the state Legislature passed Act 324, which requires counties to divert 25 percent of waste from landfills by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000. In addition, it required counties to adopt integrated solid waste management plans and to submit them to the Department of Health by January 1, 1993.

What to do?

To help develop the required plans, the county hired a consultant in late 1992. But a rift developed between the county administration and the County Council. According to a report in the Hawai`i Tribune-Herald in January 1993, the council felt that the Hilo landfill should close “because of the potential liability if, under new regulations, hazardous waste is found in it.” The county administration disagreed. According to the report, solid waste chief Galen Kuba told the council that the landfill probably already contained hazardous waste; he saw “no reason why the county couldn’t get cited for whatever’s already there.”

In February 1993, the county’s consultant, Parametrix, Inc., of Kirkland, Washington, released its report, which laid out two options:

One possibility was to close the Hilo landfill in October 1993 and truck the 200 or so tons of waste generated daily in East Hawai`i to the new West Hawai`i landfill in Pu`uanahulu, which was to open in September 1993. This option, Parametix estimated, would cost $13 million. One advantage to this was that the post-closure activities would be needed for just 10 years and would cost $1.45 million altogether. Total costs associated with Option 1: $14.5 million.

The second option was to keep the landfill three more years — to October 1996. Operating costs would be $7.9 million, significantly less than the operational costs associated with the first option. On the down side, post-closure activities would have to run 30 years, under soon-to-change RCRA rules, and would cost a total of $5.9 million. Total Option 2 costs: $13.8 million, slightly less expensive than Option 1.

By September 1993, the county had pretty well decided to go with Option 2 and asked the EPA to extend the closure deadline to April 1994. According to an article in the Tribune-Herald, then-county chief engineer Donna Faye Kiyosaki explained the need for the extension by noting that, at present, “the Hilo landfill is a flat surface.” To be closed, it would “need to have a rounded top so rain rolls off instead of seeping into the ground,” Kiyosaki was quoted as saying. “Closing it now will mean that an enormous amount of material such as dirt or gravel will be needed to cover the top of the landfill, which will be a great expense to the county, and within the next three years, refuse can be used to shape the mound, which means less cover material would be necessary.”

Management Plans

While scurrying for ways to meet deadlines imposed by federal rules, the county was also trying to pull together its Solid Waste Management Plan, required by Act 324. In September 1993, the county’s consultant on this project, Barrett Consulting Group, submitted a draft plan.

By the end of the year, the County Council approved the plan. Among other things, it called for creation of a privately operated material recovery facility (known as MRF, or “murf”) in Hilo, possibly as early as 1994, and the upgrade of outlying transfer stations to allow for collection of recyclable goods and green waste. It also called for setting up a privately run composting facility in Hilo, with smaller ones scattered elsewhere around the island. Finally, it called for a study of the feasibility of using paper and other burnable waste as fuel for a power-generation plant (a la Honolulu’s H-POWER).

Still, the county owed a report — a condition of its permit renewal — to the Department of Health on its plans for bringing the Hilo landfill into compliance with state and federal regulations. The DOH wanted to know how the county intended to prevent dumping of hazardous materials, how it was going to cover refuse each day with at least six inches of soil or gravel, how it planned to control rats, flies, mosquitoes and other disease vectors, and how it planned to deal with accumulating methane gases from the decomposition of organic material in the fill.

In March, the county delivered its plan, but the Department of Health wanted more — specifically, it wanted the county to implement the plan, which the county had not done. On July 15, 1994, therefore, the Department of Health sent a Notice and Finding of Violation and Order to the county. Among other things, the county was cited for not providing adequate daily cover, for allowing windblown litter, and for not having staff on duty the entire time the landfill was open. According to Harder, landfill workers would quit work at 2:30 p.m., hours before the gates closed. Between quitting time and 6 p.m., when the landfill shut down, illegal dumping could occur, he said.

In September and October 1994, the county erected fences around the Hilo, Kailua, Keauhou, and Waimea transfer stations — the county’s four busiest — to discourage dumping of hazardous waste at night and to keep commercial haulers out of the stations. At the time, then-solid waste director Larry Capellas was reported to have said, the actions demonstrated that the county was “taking back control of the waste stream.”

* * *

Closing Windows

In anticipation of the 1996 closing of the Hilo landfill, on March 15, 1995, the Department of Public Works issued a Request for Proposals to contract services for the design, construction and operation of a “South Hilo waste-handling ‘complex.'” Among the elements to be included were a material recovery facility (MRF), a transfer station (where waste would be collected in trailers that would be dumped eventually at Pu`uanahulu), a construction and demolition landfill for construction debris, and a composting facility.

The county’s decision to invite further participation from the private sector in its solid-waste management program was controversial in light of pending legal action. Sparking the controversy was the county’s decision two years earlier to contract with a private firm, Waste Management of Hawai`i, for the construction and operation of a new landfill at Pu`uanahulu, on the island’s dry leeward side.

The United Public Workers union, representing county employees, filed a labor grievance, arguing that the contract would take away jobs from public workers. Out of the grievance grew a much-publicized lawsuit that was not finally decided until 1997 by the Hawai`i Supreme Court. In the end, the county was required to use county employees at Pu`uanahulu and curbs were placed on many of the privatization schemes developed by county administrations statewide.

In any event, the county was not able to move forward with its RFP for the Hilo “solid-waste complex.”

Harder said he believes the delay occurred because the county was too vague in its RFP. “The county was not specific enough with what it wanted,” he said. Three or four different technologies were proposed by potential operators, making it “hard, if not impossible, to compare them,” Harder said.

Normally, when an RFP is issued, the responses that come in all propose the same type of facility. The cost estimates are examined and the low bidder is awarded the contract. The county RFP was different, Harder says. “One guy says, ‘I’ll take all of your trash as is, grind it up, pull out the recyclables, and compost it, and I’ll charge you X dollars a ton. And you don’t have to change your collection system at all.’

“The other guy says, ‘I’ll take a third of your trash, but it’s gotta be source separated, and I’ll recycle all of that third. The rest of it you’ve got to haul to Pu`uanahulu. I’ll charge you Y dollars a ton. My price is a lot less than his and I’m guaranteeing you recycling, but I’m only handling a third and you have to change your collection system.’

“And then you’ve got another guy who just wants to take green waste and compost it. That’ll handle another 25 percent.”

The county is left with no meaningful basis on which to compare the responses.

Another reason for delaying the landfill’s closure was the concern of West Hawai`i residents and businesses that all of the Big Island’s trash would end up in their backyard.

When the idea of a transfer station in Hilo was first discussed, “people on the west side of the island basically said, ‘we don’t want you guys bringing your trash over to our side,” Harder explained.

Among the opponents was the Kohala Coast Resort Association, whose members represent the upscale hotels and resorts in the area. In 1995, the association wrote Mayor Stephen Yamashiro, protesting the county’s plans to bring 400 tons of trash generated islandwide to Pu`uanahulu. This, the association said, would cause disruptions in the small towns of the Hamakua Coast, as well as Honoka`a, Waimea, Waikoloa, and Kohala Coast communities — and in addition, it would “definitely affect tourism,” which the association described as “our island’s bread and butter.”

In response, the county formed a committee to consider alternate landfill sites outside the Kona area, even though there was no reason to think the Big Island would generate enough waste to justify its expense.

* * *

On Borrowed Time

By January 1996, county Solid Waste director Capellas was explaining to Harder why an extension of the landfill permit would be needed.

“As you are aware,” he wrote on January 19, “the County of Hawai`i is involved in the process of selecting a replacement technology to take the place of the subject landfill upon targeted closure in October 1996. Unfortunately, the final selection process has been delayed and our window of opportunity to have the new facility operating prior to October 1996 has been lost.”

In fact, Capellas’ window was closing even faster than he realized. A few days after he had written Harder, Capellas discovered that the county’s permit would be expiring on March 1, 1996. On February 13, with barely two weeks remaining in the permit, Capellas wrote Harder once more, asking Harder to provide him with instructions on how to make a formal application for the permit extension. “Since time is of the essence,” he added, “we await your attention to this critical request.”

After the Fact

The state Department of Health had several concerns about the manner in which the Hilo landfill was being operated. Before agreeing to extend the county permit, it wanted to have the county address these concerns. On March 7, Harder outlined them to Capellas.

First was groundwater monitoring. The county had provided an interim groundwater monitoring plan to the state in 1995, but the DOH found that it contained inadequate hydrologic research data and analysis and failed to justify placement of the monitoring wells, among other things. Harder also mentioned that the plan lacked record-keeping procedures to document that work was done according to plan.

Also, the county would have to satisfy the federal requirement that the landfill’s operations did not pose a hazard to air traffic. The requirement was intended to address the problem of bird strikes by airplanes. Since the Hilo landfill is in close proximity to the Hilo airport, the county would need to address this issue, too, Harder said.

Chief engineer Kiyosaki replied to Harder on March 12, asking this time for an extension to December 31, 1997. To justify the request, she noted there was no alternative to the Hilo landfill, it posed no immediate threat to human health, was operating according to its operating manual, and was not shown, by its monitoring tests, to be polluting underground water sources.

In addition, she wrote, the county had surveyed the major airlines using the Hilo airport. None reported having any problem with bird interference, she said.

Conditional Approval

On May 15, 1996, after the landfill had been operating six weeks with no permit, the Department of Health granted the permit extension for the period Kiyosaki sought, subject to four conditions. The first was payment of a permit fee of $1,000. Next, the county was required, within 30 days, to submit to the DOH a strategy for developing future waste disposal capacity. Third, it was to “immediately” implement a groundwater monitoring plan. Finally, it was to collect past-due payments of the state solid waste disposal fee surcharge on waste haulers (25 cents a ton) and was to keep future accounts current.

But with the permit in hand, the county’s promises of reform appear to have been quickly forgotten. While the groundwater monitoring plan had been put in place, and the county appears to have paid the permit renewal fee, work on a waste-disposal strategic plan and collection of past-due disposal fee surcharges fell by the wayside.

In the fall of 1997, the county again sought an extension of its permit through October 9, 1998. Once more, the DOH granted a conditional permit, repeating the conditions of a strategic plan (including timetable for closure of the Hilo landfill) and collection of past-due waste disposal fee surcharges.

Why did the Department of Health renew the permit, despite the county’s failure to meet conditions of the earlier renewal?

“My personal feeling,” says Harder, “is that they submitted something” — enough to justify the permit extension, even if it wasn’t all that the state had sought. Both years, he said, “the county was wound up in issues they couldn’t control — specifically, the privatization issue… Essentially, shutting down the Hilo landfill was not a really viable option at that time. Since it wasn’t an environmental issue, and was more of a technical compliance issue, we accepted their submittal.”

* * *

A Last Request?


By the summer of 1998, the Federal Aviation Administration had determined, based on a study prepared for the county by A-Mehr, Inc., consultants, that the Hilo landfill did not pose a hazard to aviation. This, the county was hoping, would allow the state to overlook the FAA regulation requiring landfills within two miles of an airport to close by October 9.

On July 14, Kiyosaki formally sought the Department of Health’s approval for continuing to run the Hilo landfill until December 31, 2003. To justify the request, Kiyosaki again said the landfill posed no immediate threat to health or the environment. “All samples have not detected any contaminants from the landfill,” Kiyosaki wrote.

And, once more, she pleaded that there was no available alternative site to receive East Hawai`i’s refuse. The county’s 1995 efforts to contract out the design, construction and operation of a MRF and a long-haul transfer station fell apart with the state Supreme Court’s decision on privatization, she said.

In accordance with the decision in Konno v. County of Hawai`i, the county had to terminate plans for a material recovery facility. However, she added, in 1998, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 2213, allowing government officials to contract with private entities “for the purposes of efficiency and cost-effectiveness,” according to the conference committee report on the bill.

As a result, Kiyosaki said, the county could restart its efforts to plan a receiving and diversion complex and now could proceed with the design, construction, and operation of an alternate means of handling municipal solid waste.

What Lies Ahead?

At press time, the county’s request for an extension of its permit was pending in Harder’s office. Although the permit period requested would extend the life of the landfill by five years, in fact, its capacity is expected to run out sometime in the next 18 months to two years.

Will that give the county enough time to develop a new landfill or alternative means of disposing of East Hawai`i’s waste?

Harder says yes.

Before taking his present job with the DOH, Harder was solid waste coordinator for Kaua`i County. While he was there, he says, Kaua`i had to site a facility, negotiate its purchase, go through the condemnation, design, and ultimately construction of a new landfill. “We completed that process in 18 months,” he says. “It can be done. What it means is allocating a significant amount of your staff, time, and resources to it.”

But can Hawai`i County do this?

On this, Harder is somewhat more skeptical. “Basically, they’ve got Walter,” referring to Walter Lucas, the county’s present director of solid waste. “Walter is so wound up in operations, he doesn’t have a whole lot of time to do planning. So you’ve got to pull in other people within their staff.”

This may take a push on the part of the public, he adds, and that’s “another issue on the Big Island. Other than when a crisis happens, the public seems to be rather nonchalant about what happens to its trash.”

Among the proposals the county received in response to its 1995 request for proposals, the ones Harder believes were most viable all included a low-tech transfer station, where refuse is dumped into a trailer. Similar stations exist on O`ahu’s North Shore and on Kaua`i.

An ideal facility would handle between 125 tons and 150 tons a day. To haul this amount would require between four and eight new trucks. Total cost would amount to a couple of million dollars, in Harder’s estimation. This, he notes, is “nothing major” — and a small fraction of the cost of some proposals the county received (up to $10 million).

All of this — procurement, design, construction — could be done in a year to a year and a half, but, Harder adds, “I would say that’s very optimistic.”

The “quick and dirty” solution, in his eyes, “is for the county to haul everything to Pu`uanahulu.” “I think the West Hawai`i people would have some concerns over that,” he observed.

— Teresa Dawson

Volume 9, Number 4 October 1998

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