BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – The Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Health and have opened an investigation into the January 13 landfill breach that sent an estimated 7.5 million gallons of contaminated water and an unknown amount of toxic soil, trash, fecal matter and human medical waste into west Oahu’s ocean waters.
In their investigation, the EPA and DOH will look into whether there were any permit violations by Wastewater Management and the City & County of Honolulu, which are responsible for operating the landfill. Fines and penalties could be issued, says DOH spokesperson Janet Okubo.
The event, being deemed an “environmental catastrophe” by some local environmentalists, has led to the temporary closure of Waimanalo Landfill, Oahu’s only public landfill.
The closure is now going to impact bulky trash pick up, which will be on hold until the landfill reopens.
Meanwhile, Councilmembers Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo and Stanley Chang will hold a special joint hearing of the Committee on Safety, Economic Development and Governmental Affairs and the Committee on Public Works and Sustainability on Monday at 9 a.m. at city hall.
In an interview with Hawaii Reporter, Tamayo says “Our goal is not to do the work of investigation but keep focused on public interest.”
The state Department of Health is assessing whether beaches in the area, closed since the landfill wall collapsed, sending garbage into the sea, will be re-opened. Okubo says the area water is being tested to determine bacteria levels.
The beach closures have impacted thousands of residents on the west side of Oahu and the prestigious Ko’Olina Resorts. The beach fronting the new Disney Resort also was closed.
The report from the city, state and Waste Management is that the trash breach was caused when a “100-year storm” and a “catastrophic weather event” hit Oahu on January 13.
Waste Management Spokesperson Keith DeMello points out that more than 11 inches of rain fell in the area within 24 hours, comparing that to the annual rainfall for the area, which is 19 inches.
“We estimate that more than 200 million gallons of water fell in the area on January 13. This was on top of two back-to-back “25-year storms” in December, saturating the area and the landfill within it. The impact was further exacerbated by the massive flow of storm water coming down from the canyon into the landfill,” says DeMello.
Under permit guidelines, DeMello says Waimanalo Gulch Landfill is permitted to discharge storm water into the ocean; “however, the extreme nature of the January 13 floodwaters resulted in an unusual amount of debris.”
But Environmental Watchdog Carroll Cox counters there is much more to the story of how the medical waste and other dangerous contaminates ended up in the ocean and on beaches.
He maintains that the “environmental catastrophe is not due to what Waste Management and the government is calling the “storm of the century”, rather it is due to mismanagement.
“We warned the DOH and public that something like this just might happen … after the first heavy storm in late December, when we found large sheets of landfill liner in the outfall by the ocean and in the stream. We reported evidence that cell E6 in the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill had been damaged and an overflow occurred. This was surely signs of problems to come,” Cox says.
The public was outraged by the medical waste that flooded the ocean and area beaches.
The Department of Health downplays the medical waste found, saying Waste Management records show it was “properly sterilized” and “should not be considered infectious.”
The DOH says even if the high bacteria levels in the ocean from enterococcus and clostridium perfringens has gone down to safe levels, that beachgoers and swimmers could be punctured by used needles and urge caution.