Cover Story

Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill (WGSL) in Wai‘anae
Image: Joana Gonzalez

As new landfill siting issues flare, O‘ahu’s next trash incinerator moves quietly ahead

Compared with, say, saving farms or oceans, garbage management isn’t a hip, sexy environmental issue. But it’s a big one that impacts all the others. The banana peels, bottles, plastic musubi wrappers, cans, cardboard cereal boxes, toasters, televisions and other assorted rubbish that Oahu residents throw away every day add up to over 1.5 million tons annually. And sometimes, like last year, it overflows into our seas.

We’ve got a dump that is nearly tapped–the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill (WGSL)– and the next one may be coming to a site near you! Naturally, nobody wants a landfill in their backyard. However, if it’s any consolation, the city is planning on setting the majority of our trash on fire, anyway.

“HPOWER, the city’s waste-to-energy facility, is an excellent way to sharply reduce what goes to the landfill by 90 percent,” said Mayor Peter Carlisle to the Weekly. “[It’s] a sustainable mechanism that allows us to take most of what we discard and turn it into renewable energy.”

Sounds good, until further reflection. True, HPOWER’s recently added third boiler will help reduce the need for large-capacity waste storage space. And the waste-to-energy (WTE) facility already processes 600,000 tons of our filth each year, using the heat to generate enough electricity for 40,000 homes. But should we really look to burning our trash as a viable source of “renewable energy?” And why not plan to reduce the amount of waste we’re producing in the first place?

New site in sight

According to the Department of Health (DOH) solid waste database, Oahu has used 80 different sites for dumping since 1940. In 2009 the Land Use Commission (LUC) required the city to start looking for a new site to either supplement or replace the WGSL and forbade it from accepting solid waste after July 31, 2012.

Despite this looming deadline, it wasn’t until April 20 of this year that Carlisle’s Advisory Committee on Landfill Site Selection released 11 recommendations for possible replacement sites–only to do a rapid about-face and reissue the list with entirely different rankings six days later, due to a “data error.”

Of the 11 sites initially recommended by the Mayor’s Committee, the top rated recommendation was Ameron Quarry in Kailua. On April 25, upland Kahuku had moved up from seventh to No. 1, while Ameron descended to fifth.

Maybe your community’s not on the list. But what if a landfill was inching closer and closer to your household every time somebody threw away an unfinished plate lunch? Although relieved by the rankings, which put Nanakuli and Keaau uplands, located in his West Oahu district, at numbers six and eight, respectively, rather than at the top of the list, City Councilman Tom Berg remains on guard. The WGSL lies in his district, and close proximity to HPOWER, also on the Leeward side, was one of the criteria considered by the selection committee. Nothing’s final, after all. And the recent rankings scramble does not inspire confidence.

“The final ranking has been thoroughly verified,” James Dannemiller, president of SMS Research said at a press conference called to explain the blunder. SMS is responsible for statistical analysis and is working as a sub-consultant under R.M. Towill Corporation, which was commissioned by the city to provide technical support during the ranking process.

Rep. Cynthia Thielen of the 50th District covering Kailua and Kaneohe said, while she was happy to see the Ameron Quarry site slip down the list, it shouldn’t be on the list at all, noting community concerns about the site’s proximity to the Kawai Nui Marshland Reserve, it’s not-so-close proximity to HPOWER and the quarry’s importance as a supplier of raw material for concrete used in Hawaii’s construction industry.

“What was not on the list is the existing landfill . . . that has 15 more years of use,” Thielen said. “Now does that make sense for the taxpayers?”

All 11 sites remain in play. Carlisle stated in a press release that “the committee’s role is purely advisory,” and a more detailed analysis of the list will begin soon after the FY2013 budget is adopted. Carlisle has allotted certain monies to further analyze the sites.

“After that, the decision regarding a new landfill will still be up to the administration and City Council, with ample opportunity for public comment,” the mayor concluded.

Regarding public reaction, Timothy Steinberger, director of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services (ENV) says he knows that no community is going to welcome a landfill with open arms. “I can see another very long and engaged process on this,” he said. “It’s gotten more and more complex because the population is growing [and] there’s less open space. Any time you get involved in some type of public infrastructure project, you’re going to be impacting somebody.”

Back at the gulch

In the meantime, the city has requested an extension for use of the WGSL site, and more than likely, they’re going to get it.

Despite longstanding concerns expressed by members of the Leeward community about mismanagement of the WGSL, best highlighted when heavy rains caused an unknown amount of trash and medical waste to overflow onto area beaches in early 2011, the Department of Health (DOH) sees no reason why an extension of its use would pose a problem.

“The limitation of placing waste at WGSL is a political limitation,” says Gary Gill, deputy director of the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH). “There’s no engineering reason why the landfill could not continue to accept solid waste as it has been.”

Whether this is true or not, the important point is that without a landfill, Oahu’s garbage collection comes to a screeching halt. And not for just a few days. As Carlisle stated recently, “Selecting, acquiring, permitting and preparing a new landfill site could take seven years or longer.”

Any solid waste facility in the state requires a permit from DOH. As of now there aren’t any permits pending and the process is very … well, “involved,” according to Gill. It requires geological studies and engineering controls. It involves analyzing the stability of the site, where it’s placed, what is placed there now and how it is covered. These things, along with the impact the facility may have on groundwater and how the waste will be contained, all need to be reviewed and approved by DOH.

“I think the reality is that if the city is not allowed to continue to place solid waste at Waimanalo Gulch, it will have no place on this island that is approved to accommodate that waste,” Gill says.

Fortunately–or maybe not–the city is putting most of its waste-eggs in a big fiery basket called HPOWER. And thanks to land-use controls imposed by the city’s Planning Commission and LUC, they’ll be allowed to dump incinerator ash at the WGSL indefinitely, whether or not it stops taking solid waste.

Toxic ash

HPOWER, owned by the city but operated by mainland company, Covanta, is the only trash incinerator in the state. With the addition of a third boiler unit (tentatively set to start burning in May) and a permit upgrade, the waste-to-energy facility will be able to process an additional 300,000 tons per year.

HPOWER reduces trash volume by 90 percent, pulls out and recycles more than 20,000 tons of metals from the waste stream annually, employs 144 people (30 more with the expansion) and prevents emissions of methane (a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2) from decomposing trash .

“We also generate electricity,” says Mike Norris, vice president of business management of Covanta. “With the new unit, we’ll do about 7 percent of what Oahu uses. … That’s net–that’s what we send out to the grid after we use our internal power.”

While this all sounds really great, exactly what is in that ash? “The ash is not hazardous,” says Steven Chang of the DOH’s Solid and Hazardous Waste Branch. “But there are fairly high concentrations of things like lead in [it], and we’re concerned that the ash needs to be properly managed. We don’t want the ash to be spread out into the community.”

To some degree, however, it’s already in the community. We’ve been burying this stuff all over the island for over 50 years. Kakaako makai is built on the now-defunct site of two incinerators that were shut down in 1974. There’s more ash in Pearl City Peninsula Landfill Dump (1940s–1976), Sand Island Ash Dump (1934–1999) and Waipahu Incinerator Ash Landfill (1943–1972 and 1960s–1991).

According to Norris, though, the toxicity of the ash is an outdated concern. He explains that HPOWER’s system is entirely self-contained and none of the ash escapes or touches the ground until it reaches its final resting place. “Now, we have to control the boilers, it all has to be monitored.” The ash, he says, is subject to testing, which is monitored by the DOH. But who is testing the ash, exactly?

“Covanta, the operator of the facility, actually does the testing [of the ash],” said Chang of the DOH. “They submit the data to us. They collect the samples and send them to a laboratory to do the testing for them.”

While industry self-policing is inferior to testing by an independent third party, that’s where we’re at with monitoring the ash. Asked about the air emissions, “Where there’s fire there’s smoke,” replies DOH director Gill. But he adds,“The emissions are controlled through a number of practices.”

These practices include controlling the temperature to prevent certain toxins from forming during the burn process, and then filtering with an electrostatic precipitator that electrically charges the soot particles and pulls them out of the emissions. Also, there’s a “bag house,” a series of filters, basically, that pull out even more particles.

Since 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required US facilities that meet their criteria to report information annually about the toxic chemicals they release into the environment in what is known as a Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). HPOWER is not among the 37 facilities in the state required to report. The reason: HPOWER doesn’t handle hazardous waste, and the ash produced from trash incineration is not technically considered hazardous waste.

Asked whether the expansion of HPOWER is our best solution, at least until our landfill siting is resolved, Robert Harris, director of Sierra Club Hawaii, says he does question whether “simply putting waste in the land fill and letting it create methane and carbon dioxide just by sitting there” is any better than incinerating it. But burning could perpetuate the underlying problem. “The problem with incineration–particularly when you lock yourself into a contract to produce a certain amount of waste per year–” Harris explains, “is you’ve lost any and all incentive at all to reduce the amount of trash you produce.”


Harris and others point out that, instead of asking what we’re going to do with all this garbage, we need to ask how we can stop making so much of it. Diversion–keeping trash out of landfills–is key. According to the most recent data from ENV, we’re already diverting 64.4 percent of our waste. It goes straight to HPOWER. In 2010, we put less than 350,000 tons of refuse and incinerator ash into the WGSL out of the 1.5 million tons generated. While the city considers burning trash to be diverting it, ash is trash.

When it comes to true diversion, keeping stuff out of the rubbish bin in the first place, we are making progress. According to data from ENV, nearly 30 percent of the city’s total waste stream tonnage was recycled in 2010. In the last two years electronic scrap recycling has more than doubled, while newspaper recycling has gone down. This may be an effect of the digital age, since the category of “other paper” recycling rates went up over 600 percent. (The tonnage of newspaper in regular trash is not measured or accounted for.)

There are more than 30 private recycling companies on Oahu that can recycle anything from paper and plastics to motor oil, printer cartridges, packing peanuts, cooking oil, refrigerators and cell phones. Not to mention Goodwill, Salvation Army and other charities that will take your old furnishings, clothing, appliances and electronics for reuse.


By 2013, the city hopes to increase its diversion rate to 80 percent. A big help in achieving this will be the addition of a new municipal composting facility to be located northeast of Wahiawa, which will accept and process a combination of green waste, food waste and sewage sludge. A cautionary note: Sewage sludge has been known to contain heavy metals and other contaminants, and its use is forbidden in organic agriculture by the US Department of Agriculture . The city hopes the composter will help divert 15,000 tons per year of sewage and another 10,000 tons of food waste. The non-profit management company, Hawaiian Earth Recycling (HER), has completed an Environmental Impact Study and is acquiring permits before it begins building facilities. HER is owned by Hawaiian Earth Products, the largest producer of compost in the state.

When the future facility is operational, the city hopes to expand the types of organic waste they can accept in the green bins. “Once we get it to the composting facility, we got no problem,” says ENV Recycling Coordinator Suzanne Jones. “But we want to make sure we’re giving good guidelines.” There is concern about how the binned organic waste (e.g., bones, peels, cores, burnt rice and spam musubi bits) will hold up in the hot sun at curbside.


Whether it’s waste-to-energy, recycling or composting, [our waste] has value to us,” Jones says. “It’s a resource. But as we bear down on all these materials, the ones that are left in the landfill are the most challenging.”

Construction and demolition waste are hard things to divert, recycle and find other uses for, not to mention auto scrap residue, much of which comes from the outer islands.

“The more people understand this, the better they can participate in the kinds of public discussions we’re having now about landfills and food waste and sewage sludge,” says Jones.

“We’re very finite and we have to be sustainable,” says Steinbeger. “I mean, that’s the bottom line.”

Living on islands, with such a finite amount of land, we should at least think twice before tossing a can or bottle, or to call Big Brothers Big Sisters to pick up recyclables and household items. The incentive? Look around and think why you love it here. Then picture it all covered with sludge, ash and trash.

Oahu’s Next Big Trash Pile

A ranked list of 11 possible new landfill sites was released on April 20 –and then hurriedly redone. The process used a double-blind method with consultant R.M. Towill knowing the sites but not the ranking criteria, and a panel unaware of the sites picking the criteria, which include capacity, proximity to residences, schools and healthcare facilities, wind direction, affect on traffic and roadways and proximity to HPOWER. Higher scores correlate with favorability. New rankings are as follows:

1. Upland Kahuku 2: 716

2. Upland Kahuku 1: 687

3. Upland Pupukea 2: 681

4. Upland Pupukea 1: 616

5. Ameron Quarry: 580

6. Upland Laie: 565

7. Keaau: 533

8. Kaneohe by H-3: 512

9. Upland Hawaii Kai: 440

10. Kapaa Quarry Road: 437