Waste-To-Energy Plants Stalled in Maui County While Landfills Approach Capacity

Jan 8, 2020

Far from the view of the nearly three million visitors who travel to Maui County each year are two landfills that are filling up fast and approaching the end of their lifespans. 

Plans call for both to be expanded, and officials encourage residents to reduce their waste. But as the toll on the environment and taxpayers from the county's trash burden becomes clearer each year, some want the county to do more -- much more.

To appreciate the scale of Maui's waste problem, you need only to visit the Central Maui Sanitary Landfill. Opened in the 1980s, the landfill sprawls over 80 acres, or roughly 60.5 football fields. Each day, it takes in an average of 600 tons of municipal solid waste. The facility has several dirt hills that stand between 100 and 120 feet tall, each filled with accumulated trash beneath a biodegradable double liner that looks like black felt.

This landfill, the largest in the county, has another two years of space left. Another county landfill on Molokaʻi, which has been in service since 1974, has another three years of space remaining before reaching capacity.

Credit Casey Harlow / HPR

County officials say they are planning to start facility expansions for the Central Maui and Molokaʻi facilities in 2020 and 2021. The Central Maui landfill expansion is slated to start this fall, at a cost of $12.5 million -- adding another 10 years of capacity.

The Molokaʻi expansion is expected to start next year at a cost of $5 million -- for an additional 5 years of capacity.

There's more time for the landfills in Hāna and Lānaʻi. They have, respectively, another 19 and 16 years left.

CURBING THE CONSUMER CULTURE

But while all four landfills address the county's current waste disposal needs, they don't make up a long-term waste management plan. The county can't continue to produce more trash and build or expand more landfills. And that's an issue county officials recognize and want to address.

"What we are focusing on at the county is really getting folks to think about what they are consuming, reducing their waste, and recycling right, as opposed to recycling more," said Tamara Farnsworth, manager of the county's Environmental Protection and Sustainability Division.

"I think there has been a common environmental perception that recycling more is the best thing you can do, when really the best thing to do for the environment is to reduce and decrease what we consume, and what we buy."

Farnsworth said the county continues to accept recycled materials but it still ships a majority of it off-island, even though the current market for recyclable materials has tightened since China stopped accepting waste from other countries two years ago.

"Generally, the recycling industry, overall, is collect it here, pack it up, and ship it out to foreign countries," she said. Some of Maui's recyclable material is processed in the state, Farnsworth said, but it's generally shipped to other counties such as those in Asia.

Maui Council member Kelly King
Credit Maui County Council

At least one local lawmaker thinks the county has fallen back in recent years in managing its waste and needs to do more if it hopes to end the cycle of building landfills, filling them up and developing more.

"We've gone down in our recycling efforts in the last 20 years, and, specifically, in the last five to eight years," said South Maui Council member Kelly King, the former council chair.

King co-owns Pacific Biodiesel with her husband. The company, founded in 1995, makes biofuel from recycled cooking oil from restaurants. 

King believes more local organizations or companies should initiate recycling and waste management efforts within the county. That way, if one part of the waste management infrastrucutre fails or external factors arise, the impact on the county would not be as great.

"However it happens, we need to process that stuff here on the island," she said. "We need to deal with our own trash instead of shipping it off-island. Because along with out of sight, out of mind, comes all the extra emissions we're creating by shipping off-island, and also the loss of potential resources."

And she emphasizes that these efforts must be homegrown.

"There were policies of the previous administration that had a desire to farm out all the operations of the landfill," she said. 

The Central Maui landfill office
Credit Casey Harlow / HPR

ANAERGIA: WAITING FOR WHAT'S 'TANGIBLE'

What King referred to are the agreements struck during former Mayor Alan Arakawa's administration with Anaergia, a California-based company that was hired to convert waste into "useful resources." 

In January 2014, the county selected Anaergia to finance, plan, design, permit, construct, own, operate and maintain a waste-to-energy fuel project. The company would build the facility on a property near the Central Maui landfill. The Maui News reported in April 2019 that the facility was to convert waste and landfill gas into marketable energy commodities.

According to Anaergia, the 20-year contract will save the county money by converting waste into energy, with the county guaranteeing a certain amount of trash for the facility.

In 2017, the county entered into another agreement with Anaergia, this time for an electrical energy generation and sludge-drying operation at the Wailuku-Kahului Wastewater Reclamation Facility. But the project stalled after two community groups in 2018 challenged approval of the company's environmental impact statement.

Sierra Club Maui Chapter and Maui Tomorrow argued Anaergia should be subject to a more rigorous environmental review because the processing and disposing of waste was traditionally a governmental function. A 2nd Circuit Court judge agreed with the groups, and rejected the EIS last year, forcing Anaergia to restart the environmental review process.

The ruling also affected Anaergia's plans for the Central Maui waste-to-energy project. An Anaergia official told HPR that the company, along with the county, are challenging the court's ruling. But until the litigation is resolved, both projects are stalled. 

Despite the problematic history of the projects, Arakawa extended Anaergia's deadlines for permitting, approvals and other agreements until the end of June 2020.

"Unfortunately, [Anaergia] did not really have the experience that they purported to have. And so nothing has happened, literally nothing," Council member King said.

Mayor Michael Victorino, Arakawa's successor, has said he won't be extending Anaergia's deadlines for both projects beyond June until he sees something "tangible."

Victorino declined to be interviewed for this story. He issued a statement saying only that he continues to explore ways to address the county's waste.

LOCAL RECYCLING

While the uncertainty concerning the Anaergia projects plays out, county officials said they are studying how to recycle more materials locally. Farnsworth said her division is looking at options for reusing glass and other materials.

"But that is currently in the research-and-development phases. We're really trying to figure out how to do it, and how to keep as much as we can here local," she said.

As for Maui County's broader approach to its waste problems, Farnsworth says the county is developing a comprehensive plan to handle solid waste long-term. She expects that to be completed in the next couple of years.

In the meantime, the county is focusing its efforts on source and waste reduction by raising awareness among residents at community events about the toll that trash extracts.

This story is part of our series "Trashing The Islands," a look at the state's mounting trash problems. We'd like to hear your comments on our stories and questions you have about dealing with our trash problem. Call us on our Talk Back line at (808) 792-8217 and leave your comment, name and phone number. Or email us at news@hawaiipublicradio.org, tweet us @wearehpr or comment on Facebook