Tanker trucks dumped leachate from the landfill into manholes for the municipal sewer system along Farrington Highway in front of Pu‘uhulu Beach. Right: On Friday, medical waste at Ma‘ipaloa Beach at Ko Olina Resort.
Image: Kathy King

The hidden crisis of medical waste disposal
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“You can expect dangerous flotsam to keep washing ashore for a long time.” Oceanographer Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer, PhD

Health / Unusually heavy rains flooded a reservoir above Waimanalo Gulch Landfill in the early hours of Tuesday, Jan. 13. The overflow 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, beaches were closed.

“The Department of Health directed us to extract storm water from the Waimanalo Gulch and distribute it to the Waianae treatment facility,” says Markus Owens, public information officer for the Department of Environmental Services. “I believe it went into a manhole close to the treatment facility, where it was processed and then discharged back into the environment, about one-half mile offshore.”

The waste was cleaned up by crews hired by the city, Waste Management Inc., Ko Olina Beach Resort, lifeguards and community volunteers, according to Janice Okubo, Department of Health (DOH) spokesperson. The beaches were re-opened Sunday after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authorized the removal of “contaminated water” warning signs from the shoreline along the west and south shores of Oahu.

Case closed, according to some officials. This view was seemingly validated by dwindling media coverage of the event labeled a “public health crisis” a little more than a week ago. But the rush to those unsubstantiated conclusions leaves many questions unanswered, especially those relating to public safety and government accountability. Could a repeat of the overflowing landfill situation result in serious illness due to contaminated medical waste such as bloody needles, syringes and vials?

“There is the mistaken idea that flotsam–like a hypodermic needle lying on the shore–will stay on the shore,” says oceanographer Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer PhD, an expert in tracking the landfall of ocean flotsam and spills. “Ocean currents are very swift in taking things from the shore into offshore waters and beyond,” he says. “You can expect dangerous flotsam to keep washing ashore for a long time.”

The rule of thumb about flotsam, says Ebbesmeyer, is that it drifts about 10 miles per day–100 miles for 10 days, 200 miles for 20 days and 300 miles for 30 days. “All citizens in the Hawaiian Islands from the Big Island north to French Frigate Shoals should be searching the shores for this medical waste,” says Ebbesmeyer.

“Even if the medical waste has been sterilized, I sure would not want to be poked in the eye with a needle,” says Larry Geller, editor of the Disappeared News blog.

“The waste reported by beachcombers should be tested by independent laboratories,” says Ebbesmeyer. “This is expensive testing for bacteria and viruses and chemicals. It might cost $1,000 per sample. Unfortunately, those in charge have the money. “

Beachcombers are encouraged to monitor beaches in their area, take photos and report any medical waste, unsanitary debris or dangerous flotsam to Honolulu Weekly at [email: medicalwaste].


Exactly what is being pumped out of the landfill into the sewers in Waianae? Is it storm water or is it leachate? (contaminated waste water in a landfill from hazardous substances that percolate downward) Does the landfill have a permit to dump leachate into the municipal sewer system in Waianae?

Will the state or the city be fined by the EPA for improper management of the landfill? What state department(s) stand to reap the benefits of those fines?

Is debris from this event currently floating offshore? If so, where is it located? Is the medical waste a danger to people and sea organisms if ocean currents push it to the Neighbor Islands or if it becomes part of the “garbage patch” of the Pacific Ocean?

Is there any specific damage to the liner of the landfill? If so, when did the rip occur, and has it been repaired? Do repair plans already exist, at what cost and to whom? Is it a public health threat if the waste is leaking into the surrounding land or ground water?

How much debris was picked up on the beaches by clean up crews? Tons? Was it measured? How much of it was medical waste?

How do we know that all the medical waste was sterilized? Should it be disposed of along with the other trash or handled separately in another area of the landfill?

Does the medical waste currently pose any risk of serious illness? As soon as the needles are out of the autoclave and mixed with other waste in the landfill, they are no longer sterile. And by the time it has washed up on the beach, it is no longer sterile.