Oahu Grapples With Where To Place Its Next Landfill As It Confronts Its Waste Dilemma

Jan 7, 2020

About 30 trucks roll down Farrington Highway on the west side of Oahu every day to dump waste at the City and County of Honolulu's only municipal landfill, Waimanalo Gulch. Now after 30 years, the State Land Use Commission has ordered the landfill to close its doors for good by 2028.

The landfill symbolizes Oahu's continuing struggle to reduce the waste generated by about 1 million residents and visitors on any given day. On one hand, H-Power -- the waste-to-energy incinerator in Kapolei -- has allowed the city to divert a significant portion of its trash. Yet the island still needs a location to dump ash from H-Power and the remaining mountain of waste that the plant canʻt process.

Now, the city must decide how it will deal with the island's burgeoning waste in the future. This reckoning is not solely due to the approaching land use deadline and environmental pressures surrounding Waimanalo Gulch, but mounting opposition to the location of waste facilities in Leeward Oahu, where many residents say they have had enough.

Waianae Sen. Maile Shimabukuro said the land use commissonʻs order to close Waimanalo Gulch is long overdue.

“The community's been told time and time again the landfill would in fact close. But each time the closure date comes around, the city seeks an extension,” she said. “There’s definitely a feeling of -- just in general -- environmental injustice for our whole coastline.”

WAIMANALO GULCHʻS LIFESPAN

The landfill was built in 1989 on property designated for agricultural use. Because of this classification, the landfill requires a special use permit from the land use commission to continue operating.

In 1987, when its original special use permit was issued, Waimanalo Gulch covered 60.5 acres and was projected to last for only eight years. But over the last 30 years, the city has continued to seek extensions and expansions.

Waimanalo Gulch now covers 115.8 acres.

In 2009, the land use commission voted to eliminate solid waste from the landfill by July 31, 2012. However, before the city was forced to comply with the order, the Hawaii Supreme Court overturned the decision, allowing the landfill to continue operating.

Then last October, the land use commission didn’t just say that the landfill cannot accept more solid waste, the commissioners decided Waimanalo Gulch must shut down by March 2, 2028.

Under former Mayor Mufi Hanneman's administration, officials said it would take at least seven years to open a new landfill. The current city Department of Environmental Services director, Lori Kahikina, thinks that may not be enough time.

“I’m not sure I agree with the seven years. In fairness to them, my predecessors have said that it takes seven years to cite a new landfill,” Kahikina said. “I think it takes a lot longer than that.”

To develop a new landfill, the city must pick a location, acquire the property if it doesn't already own it, conduct an environmental impact statement, design the facility and then construct it. Cost projections to develop each site varies by location and ranges from $33.6 million to $76.8 million.

The city further argues that H-Power is extending the life of the Waimanalo landfill. According to Waimanalo Gulch Disposal Engineer Ahmad Sadri,  H-Power has helped cut the number of trucks dumping waste into the landfill.

“Our current projections give us, I think, it’s about 20 years of life left,” he said of the landfill. “That’s combined ash and [municipal solid waste] but that could, of course, change with future technology and future diversion.”

Because of that projection, Kahikina said 2028 is too soon to close Waimanalo Gulch and develop another landfill.

“My personal feelings are it's a waste of taxpayers’ money because we have so many years left on Waimanalo Gulch,” she said. “We've diverted so much, and I know the Leeward Coast people will be really upset at me for saying that, because I know the Leeward Coast feels they're dumped on.”

THE NEXT MUNICIPAL LANDFILL

Two years ago, Mayor Kirk Caldwell commissioned a study to look at the top choices for a new city landfill. Eleven choices were ranked, and two of the top five candidates are on the leeward side.

Kahikina said the city will probably use Caldwell’s study to choose the location of the next landfill.

“We need to dust it off ... and have our consultant and our staff really look at that. Is this still valid two years later?” she said. “But with eight years, we don't have time to procure another consultant do it . . .  We've got to move.”

The base of this map is from the Honolulu's 2017 landfill study, with added information from the city Department of Planning and Permitting and the Hawaii State Land Use Commission to determine ownership of the land, cost and state land use designation for possible locations of the islandʻs next landfill.
Credit Ashley Mizuo/HPR

The study ranked Upland Nanakuli as the top spot for a new landfill and Kea’au in Waianae as its fourth choice.

Kahikina said one of the main reasons the Leeward Coast locations landed so high up on the study's list is because of their close proximity to the H-Power plant. Another major factor is who owns the properties. 

Upland Nanakuli is state-owned. Ke'eau is owned by McCandless Ranch, Allen Stack Jr. and Elizabeth Stack, according to the city Department of Planning and Permitting. 

Two other possible landfill sites in Kahuku are controlled by the military. Eight of the other sites are privately owned.

“There's no way the city is going to get property owned by the federal government,” Kahikina said. “The 2017 report [also] took into account engineering technical issues, and that's my understanding how those top were still selected on the leeward side.”

A spokesperson with Caldwell’s office said while it is the mayor who would decide on a new landfill site, the City Council weighs in when the budget’s drafted. That is where the issue may get its next high-profile public airing.

If the city does not want to comply with the 2028 deadline, it could apply for a district boundary amendment for Waimanalo Gulch, said Daniel Orodenker, executive officer of the State Land Use Commission staff.

There are four land use designations in Hawaii: agricultural, rural, conservation and urban. The last is the least restrictive and a landfill would not need a special use permit to operate on urban land.

Orordenker estimated that about 90 percent of district boundary amendment requests are granted because the land use commission staff can advise applicants beforehand if they have a case or not.

Kahikina, the city's environmental services head, said she first heard about the urban designation option during the land use commission hearing in October, but the city has not yet discussed it as an option.

BEYOND LANDFILLS

But while a district boundary change could prolong the operation of Waimanalo Gulch, it would not address the larger need for the island to reduce waste at its source.

The city’s contract with H-Power runs for another 12 years. The agreement with operator Convanta Honolulu requires a landfill, in part as a backup in case the plant can't burn refuse, but also to take the 19,000 tons of ash produced each year by H-Power.

The city wants to reuse the ash as construction aggregate and has put out a request for proposals to develop a facility plan. The RFPs are due later this month and a plan will be selected in mid-March. City officials hope to build the facility before Caldwell leaves his post at the end of the year.

The city has recently adopted laws aimed at banning use of plastic bags and plastic and polystyrene food ware. But those efforts have just begun and their impact will not significantly reduce the waste that is filling Waimanalo Gulch.

Caldwell told HPR he is searching for a way to eliminate the need for a landfill altogether, something he hopes will happen in the next decade.

"My goal is still to do that and not decide a new landfill. And even though we got the land use commission ruling, I will continue to work to see if there's another way to avoid having to burden another community on this island," he said.

"If that doesn't work and we're forced to do so then, yes, I'll be looking for another landfill somewhere else ... but I'm not ready to go there."

The city has until 2022 to indentify the site of the next landfill.

In the meantime, state Sen. Shimabukuro said the city should continue its efforts to reduce its reliance on landfills.

“Of course, no one's going to be happy with having a landfill in our backyard, but if it was only for natural disasters, and for when H-Power closes, of course, that would be a lot better than what we have now,” she said. “That could be a compromise. That would be better than nothing.”

This story is part of our series, "Trashing The Islands," an examination of our waste practices statewide. We'd like to hear your comments and questions about our trash issues. Call us on our Talk Back line at (808) 792-8217 and leave your comment, name and phone number. You can also email us at news@hawaiipublicradio.org, tweet us @wearehpr or comment on our Facebook page.