The Blame Game
It was a breezy, blue-sky summer day in early 2000, and Geri Marullo, her husband, Bob Grossmann, and their young daughter, Maya, were enjoying a day of snorkeling and swimming at one of their favorite public beaches–Paradise Cove Beach–near Ko Olina Resort On Oahu’s Leeward Coast. “We love to swim and hang out at that little park,” recalls Marullo, former deputy director of the state Department of Health (DOH) who has a doctorate in public health. Suddenly, she looked up and noticed small, plastic bags being carried by powerful winds over the mountains and out to the sea. “It was raining garbage,” recalls Marullo, former president and CEO of the American Nurses’ Association.
“The bags were lifted by the wind stream hundreds of feet directly up into the tradewinds, about one every few seconds,” says Grossmann, who has a PhD and previously lectured at the now defunct University of Hawaii’s School of Public Health. “The trees at Ko Olina were filled with plastic bags.” Grossmann called the DOH to alert them to the problem. “It was my belief that they were not covering the trash as fast as they should on that day, given the wind conditions,” says Grossmann, a 30-year Hawaii resident and co-editor of The Unfinished HealthAgenda: Lessons From Hawaii.
Today, the enormity and seriousness of the unfolding medical waste fiasco goes far beyond the flying bags observed by the Marullo-Grossmann family during their day at the beach.
Oahu generates approximately 1.79 million tons of waste annually from residential, commercial and industrial sources. When it comes to the management of that waste–which also includes sterilized medical waste such as used needles and soiled bandages–state and local governments, corporate entities and private citizens currently involved in the barrage of alleged serious waste management violations are worried. Understandably, they seek to avoid accountability for any missteps, especially in light of possible legal charges or huge fines slapped on them by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In 2002, 66-year-old Stanley Hong, president and CEO of both the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii and the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, settled into his new job overseeing the landfills on Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island in his capacity as president of Waste Management of Hawaii, Inc. (WMH), the local arm of a Houston-based firm. At the time, Hong was politically connected but had no background working in waste management. Little did Hong know that he was stepping into a job that would be the focus of major state controversy less than a decade later.
The Waimanalo Gulch Landfill is one of two landfills on Oahu. The other landfill in Nanakuli is permitted for construction and demolition waste only. Most residential and general commercial trash is disposed of at H-POWER, the city’s waste-to-energy plant built in 1990. The city’s goal is to minimize the use of landfills for waste disposal by disposing more than one million tons of waste from landfills annually to H-POWER. The problem is that H-POWER is already operating at 110 percent capacity.
A Perfect Storm
Over the years, other violations at WMH have surfaced, including the failure to complete a state-required retaining wall to remove excess water that flowed from the dump after heavy rains.
On one occasion, a registered nurse who chooses to remain anonymous recalls: “I saw medical records and plastic IV tubing with people’s names on it strewn along a Leeward beach. I got some plastic bags and started collecting the medical waste. I also notified the Health Department.”
Earlier in her career, while working at a private hospital, she does not recall any statewide effort to sterilize hospital medical waste prior to its disposal. “I only remember sterilizing bedpans.”
Then came the disaster nobody could ignore. In the early hours of Thursday, Jan. 13, a series of heavy rainfalls flooded a reservoir above the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill, causing the entire content of the dump to liquefy, and an undetermined portion of it emptied into the ocean.
The overflow from the landfill traveled into a section of the reservoir filled with waste, including allegedly sterilized medical waste, then into a drainage area at the bottom of the landfill. The drain emptied into a filtration basin that overflowed into storm drains under the highway and through the Ko Olina Resort property into the ocean. As a result, all Leeward Coast beaches were closed.
City Councilmember Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo was one of the first officials on the scene at Mailiili Beach on Thursday, Jan. 13. “I was shocked to see all the debris that was swept onshore by the currents,” she recalls. “I was worried that other types of [dangerous] debris, including syringes from diabetics, could also have gone onshore.”
“It’s certainly possible,” WMH general manager Joe Whelan later responded in a hearing.
Who’s to Blame?
In the aftermath of the recent storms, the landfill and beaches in the area were temporarily closed, causing local residents to become increasingly alarmed about the bad smells and bulky items piling up on their curbs.
Tamayo and other officials now face a critical sewage and garbage back up as they seek viable solutions to dumping medical waste and other debris into the ocean. “This is absolutely an emergency,” Tamayo told the Weekly.
Employees of WMH, members of the City Council and DOH officials are still scrambling to get their stories straight.
In a Jan. 26 interview with the Weekly, Markus Owens, public information officer for the city’s Department of Environmental Services, repeatedly said the Department of Health “…directed us to extract storm water from the Waimanalo Gulch and distribute it to the Waianae treatment facility.” The emphasis on directed seems an intentional reference to the fact that city officials acted upon an order from the DOH.
Then came a baffling situation in which city and state officials announced they would give a joint press conference to explain the issues involved. At the last minute, the DOH decided to hold its own press conference. Skeptics believe this was the DOH’s attempt to protect itself by controlling the explanation of its own version of the recent events.
Blaming Mother Nature
From the beginning, WMH General Manager Joe Whelan and Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle clearly put the blame on Mother Nature.
“We normally get about 19 inches of rain in a year,” said Whelan during a hearing at the state Capitol, in which he made several pointed references to the “100-year flood.” He said his company had no standard operating plans to deal with a flood of this magnitude and expressed disappointment that a newly designed system scheduled for completion sometime this month was not ready for operation. “It would have been able to handle a “once in a 100-year storm,” Whelan insisted.
“The havoc which nature has wrought, nature has now set straight,” Carlisle said about the ensuing sunny weather that helped prevent additional rainfall and flooding. “We had three storms that produced 22 inches of rain in a three-week period,” Carlisle reminded the concerned citizens eager to fire questions at him.
Extreme Events in a Warming World
Comments evaluating the “once in a 100-year rainstorm” hypothesis by WMH are perhaps best evaluated by researchers and professors in the academic world. In this case, Pao-Shin Chu, PhD, a professor and state climatologist at the Department of Meteorology at the University of Hawaii School of Ocean and Earth Science Technology presents an evidence-based hypothesis proposing that worldwide climate changes might be responsible for the heavy rainfall experienced on Oahu last month.
“Although rainfall intensity on Oahu and Kauai has generally decreased over the past 60 years, climate shifts have also changed over that time. Since 1980, these two islands have shown an increasing trend for rainfall to become more intense.”
It is well known that the earth has been undergoing an unprecedented warming process since the Industrial Revolution, according to Chu. Thus, it can be expected that extreme events in temperature and rainfall can quickly become a public health concern because of their potential damage to humans, property, public infrastructure and agriculture.
“The increase in intense precipitation events, as seen in the last 30 years, may become more frequent in this century,” according to Chu.
Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Duckies
With so much finger pointing and dozens of hastily called press conferences offering conflicting information or leaving questions unanswered, who are we to believe? There are experts like physical oceanographer Paul J. Ebbesmeyer, who has made a career of literally getting to the bottom of this matter.
While monitoring a landfill and waste debris might not be your cup of tea, Ebbesmeyer fell in love with the experience in 1990, after tracking a pair of Nike sneakers that had fallen from a container ship.
“I saw this as an opportunity to monitor ocean currents by following running shoes and rubber duckies along the coasts of Oregon and Washington.
He formed a network of people with similar interests. Ever since, Ebbesmeyer has tracked the ocean movements of all kinds of flotsam, including 34,000 ice hockey gloves washed off a boat in Seattle.
In 1996, he wrote and published the “Beachcomber’s Alert” magazine and now works with a Seattle-based oceanography company offering ocean-tracking services and studies of meteorological conditions.
In 1999, he and a colleague discovered that the ratio of plastic to plankton in the North Pacific subtropical area is about 6 to 1. His study alarmed ocean lovers because it suggested harm to all marine life at the very start of the ocean food chain. For more information, go to [beachcombersalert.org].
EPA Allows Waimanalo Gulch Landfill to Reopen
On Friday, Jan. 28, 2011, the EPA announced the reopening of the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill, despite WMH’s failure to complete all tasks ordered by the EPA on Tuesday, Jan. 25. The EPA said it recognized that the continued closure of the landfill might create a risk to public health from the mounting accumulation of waste throughout Oahu.
EPA’s approval limits the location of waste placed within the landfill and requires a revised contingency plan describing how the company will manage on-site storm water.
The damage to the facility is to be repaired “as expeditiously as possible.” WMH also must submit a revised storm-water contingency plan by Tuesday that describes how water will be managed in the event that heavy rains come while the diversion channel is under construction.
The issue is multidimensional, and the biggest problem is we are building higher and higher up on the landfill to avoid what’s really needed –finding a new place for a landfill. In the meantime, there’s the extremely perplexing accountability problem and the difficult decision about what to do with all the waste.
Is H-POWER the Solution?
Noncombustible construction, demolition debris and industry wastes go directly to a landfill. H-POWER began operation in 1990 and today converts more than 2,000 tons of waste per day into electricity to power more than 40,000 homes. H-POWER produces 7 percent of Oahu’s electricity and reduces the volume of refuge going to landfill by 90 percent. On Oahu, waste-to-energy works in partnership with recycling efforts to significantly reduce the amount of waste going to landfills.
According to Whelan, his facility averages 250 tons of ash per day. The ash resembles the residue left in your fireplace. Because of its toxicity, it is stored for burning at the H-POWER plant. After it is burned, the ash must be strictly contained because all the toxic heavy metals are concentrated at the bottom. Many are concerned about the integrity of the current ash pile, including the liner. Was any of the ash washed into the sea?
H-POWER, which handles only burnable trash, leaves about a one to 10 residue. In other words, for every 10 tons of treated trash, about one ton of ash remains.
It’s critical to ask: Were the liners at the landfill ripped or disrupted? If so, did they allow any of the ash to get out? If so, it could present serious environmental consequences that could result in huge fines by the EPA.
Did any of that ash work its way into the area around it? Even worse, what if some of the ash got washed into the sea? Basically, if the movement of highly toxic sediment inadvertently allowed some of the ash to go into the ocean, it would be highly toxic to every living thing.
“The real problem is the NIMBY syndrome, in which nobody wants a waste dump in their backyard,” says Grossmann. “The people in Waimanalo say they have had the trash dump for decades, and it’s time for it to go elsewhere.”
In the meantime, the Hawaii Tourism Authority might consider advertising the Sunshine State as the “only islands in the world with flying garbage.”
Hawaii Bio-Waste Systems Inc. (HBW) was founded in 1991. The company was originally formed in response to the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988 and to help local health care practitioners comply with Hawaii Administrative Rules governing medical waste disposal. It has grown from a small company with a few dozen clients to more than 1,200 clients, including all the major hospitals and laboratories in Hawaii.
HBW transports, treats and disposes of all varieties of medical waste generated by medical, dental, veterinary, laboratory and pharmaceutical facilities. These facilities include all private as well as federal, state, county and city facilities.
The treatment facility on Oahu was completed in 2000 and treats more regulated waste than any other company in Hawaii. It processes more than 1,000 tons of waste annually, much of it from the Neighbor Islands, which ships containers weekly to Oahu.
The silver lining in this crisis is that the Legislature opened last week, and lawmakers are calling for suggested legislation to deal with the waste-management problem, a convenient way of taking themselves off the hook for not recognizing earlier that it was only a matter of time before the current landfill would overflow.
“We are asking the Legislature to continue to recognize that a healthy economy in the middle of the Pacific is dependent on a healthy environment,” says the Nature Conservancy’s Mark Fox. “Our legislative priority is to ban the use of plastic bags and Styrofoam containers in Hawaii.” The TNC is also asking for support, planning and resilience about the effects of climate change. The organization is asking that a small portion of the barrel fee (5 percent to 10 percent) address “the inevitable effects of climate change caused by burning fossil fuels.”
The Surfrider Foundation is asking legislators to establish a small fee for each single-use plastic or paper bag, to reduce the amount of waste going into our landfills.
The Windward Ahupuaa Alliance, under the leadership of Shannon Wood, is asking the Legislature to reestablish the Climate Change Task Force (Act 20), which was passed in 2009. Its funding, however, was never released by former Gov. Lingle after her veto was over-ridden. “Its objective is to identify current and potential impacts of global warming and sea-level rise, to estimate the costs of damages caused by them, and to suggest the passage of previous legislative and administrative policy changes at county and state levels that have never been carried out.