BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Environmental watchdog Carroll Cox displayed vials of blood and several used medical syringes that he collected from Oahu’s west end beaches over the weekend after heavy rains flooded Oahu’s public landfill managed by Waste Management.
The medical waste, toxic soil, heavy metals, and garbage that was once buried at Waimanalo Gulch Landfill, rushed into the ocean late last week forcing the closure of multiple beaches. That included pristine beaches fronting the luxurious Ko Olina Resorts and the soon-to-be opened Disney Resort as well as the U.S. Navy’s White Plains Beach.
While the public is angered and frightened by the negative impact on the environment, beaches and tourism, a city spokesperson says there are no plans to change the way that Waste Management buries the so-called sanitized medical waste. There’s no guarantee that this won’t happen again in another big rainstorm because changes are “cost prohibitive.”
The debate over how and why this happened rages on with environmentalists accusing the government and the company of creating an environmental disaster through poor management.
Meanwhile, the city and state defend Waste Management, a global company based in Houston, Texas. According to Wikipedia, the company has the “largest trucking fleet in the waste industry and handles with its competitor Republic Services, Inc, “half of all garbage collection in the United States.”
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 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, noting his concerns were documented on a KHON TV 2 news report three days before the breach.
Cox says sources involved with the landfill told him “water flowing into the E6 cell was due to a malfunctioning drainage system put in place by Waste Management Inc.” … “They told us heavy buildup of debris in a drainage pipe backed up and flooded cell E6, which was filled with trash. They also attributed the backup to a design flaw,” Cox says, pledging to continue his investigation.
Cox isn’t the only one asking tough questions.
Councilmember Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo, as Chair of the Safety, Economic Development and Government Affairs Committee, plans to hold a committee hearing.
She spent the weekend combing the beaches in her former neighborhood. She has turned up used syringes and medical waste as Cox has, and she too has not received answers to the many questions that she and area constituents have as to how this could have happened.
Hawaii Reporter also was unable to get answers as to the impact on the environment, and whether anyone would be held accountable either civilly or criminally.
City spokesperson, Markus Owens, says the city has not yet been told how much water and debris – and exactly what kind of debris – went into the ocean.
While Waste Management has hired a crew to walk and clean up the beaches from White Plains Beach to Tracks, Owens says “neither the State DOH nor the EPA is requiring additional measures be taken.”
Hawaii Reporter also questioned why the medical waste was stored in a place that can be impacted by a storm rather than incinerated.
Owens says medical waste is classified as ‘Special Waste’ by the hauler who insures it has been treated and sterilized before bringing it to WGSL. “It is buried like any other material that makes its way to the landfill,” he says.
What is being done in the future to ensure this does not happen again? The city has no assurances it won’t.
“There is no way to ensure that this does not happen again, given our ability to control nature. Moreover, infrastructure that is designed to handle once in a 100-year storms would be cost-prohibitive,” Owens says.
Waste Management is completing construction of a large storm catch basin in the upper area of the landfill, which should help divert water in the future, Owens and DeMello say.
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 is warning of high bacteria levels in the ocean including enterococcus and clostridium perfringens in the storm water and nearby coastline on Thursday and Monday, and says beachgoers and swimmers could be punctured by used needles.
An Internet search shows Waste Management has been in legal and criminal trouble before.
- In 1987, Waste Management heads were accused of violating federal antitrust laws.
- In 1998, the company was busted for making their after-tax profits appear higher. “The net result was $1.7B in inflated earnings. WM paid $457M to settle a shareholder class-action lawsuit and the SEC fined WM’s independent auditor, Arthur Andersen, $7 million for their role,” Wikipedia reports.
- The Securities and Exchange Commission reports in 2002 that it filed suit against the founder and five other former top officers of Waste Management Inc., charging them with “perpetrating a massive financial fraud” over 5 years.
- In 2006, DOH fined the city $2.8 million for 18 violations at the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary landfill over a two-year period, which included exceeding high limits for trash, improper solid waste cover and excessive leachate. The fine is one of the largest in the state.
- In 2007, Waste Management was involved in a labor dispute and there were concerns over sanitary impact on the affected communities leading to the communities taking legal actions against Waste Management.
- In November 2010, some residents of Kettleman City, California protested Waste Management’s plan to double the size of its Kettleman Hills Hazardous Waste Facility where reportedly hazardous waste was buried.
Cox says this history concerns him and he plans on investigating this story further. “We would like to give you more information, but government is not being forthright. What do you do when the government covers up for big business and the city?”