Honolulu Mayor Carlisle Testifies on the Landfill Breach that Sent Medical Waste into Ocean

Peter Carlisle
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Peter Carlisle

BY PETER CARLISLE – We look forward to today’s joint Council committee hearing regarding the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill to provide accurate information to you and the public.  This promotes a culture of transparency and collaboration within City government that is healthy.



Overnight from Wednesday, January 12, to Thursday, January 13, a major storm event occurred in West Oahu.  10.68 inches of rain fell overnight (approximately 7 and ¼ inches fell in six hours).

City emergency first responders answered over 58 storm-related calls, including trapped persons on flooded roadways, inundated properties, and a warehouse roof collapse.  The massive rainfall also carried waste from Honolulu’s only municipal landfill in Waimanalo Gulch to beaches below the facility.  An event such as this has never previously occurred at Waimanalo Gulch.


The property beneath the landfill is owned by the City and County of Honolulu.  The properly-permitted operator of the landfill is Waste Management of Hawaii.  Waste Management is a large and experienced corporation that to the best of our knowledge has always been compliant with the requirements of the permit.

A significant portion of the active cell washed out.  After it washed out, up to 20 million gallons of accumulated storm water remained.   Waste Management calculated 200 million gallons of storm water funneled into a ditch that included water from the Waimanalo Gulch.  That water drained directly into the ocean, via the WGSL drainage system.  Debris from the storm spread into the ocean and began washing up on the beach.


Truckloads if waste accumulated on the beaches.

A fraction was medical waste.

It was clearly alarming to look at.

People were concerned that it carried the potential of disease and infection.

The medical debris included syringes that were prominently displayed or discussed in the media.

DOH and the City informed the public that all medical waste that enters the landfill is autoclaved to a state of certified sterility.

Working with the health department, the City placed ocean advisory signs on several nearby beaches after the storm.  The landfill is closed and will remain so until it can safely receive waste in compliance with all federal and state laws.


By Friday morning, January 14, Waste Management hired a clean-up crew that picked up debris by hand.  The Department of Health permitted the discharging of storm water into the ocean in an effort to drain the landfill and return it to operating ability.  This was continued until 10:00 Sunday morning and a new effort was initiated to pump the remaining storm water into trucks, taken to wastewater plants, treated and then pumped into the ocean.  To speed up the process, permission was granted to city workers to work around the clock.


Beginning on the day the rain stopped, Federal, State and City agencies as well as Waste Management began working together to address the impact of the storm and normalize utilization of the landfill.   It was essential at this point to collaborate, not finger-point.

On Sunday, a large summit was held involving these agencies to create a plan to deal with the backlog of municipal waste created by the loss of the landfill and maximum utilization of the H-Power garbage to energy boilers.

I want to personally recognize the efforts of federal, state and city public workers in response to this crisis.  An extraordinary amount of collaboration among all agencies and the landfill operator was required to assess the damage, plan for the remediation and cleanup, and execute a coordinated response.  Within the City alone, hundreds of environmental services workers, ocean safety responders, parks personnel, emergency workers and laborers have put in long hours post-storm.  To these employees, thank you for your hard work and dedication to public service.

I also acknowledge the efforts of private citizens, property owners, advocates, other government leaders and the media to alert the City regarding the various impacts of the storm and release of waste, or to assist in the cleanup of the coastline.  When these entities spoke up, the City has done its best under the circumstances to respond.  I am most grateful to all volunteers for their assistance.  This is how a community ought to respond after a crisis.  It speaks well of Oahu’s citizens.

Today, I am pleased to announce that ocean water quality samples have returned to normal.  Yesterday the health department lifted its ocean advisory.  Reports of waste on beaches directly attributable to the landfill have shrunk to almost none.  Most importantly, no lives were lost and no confirmed injuries occurred due to the storm.

As the landfill is still not open, we are not out of this crisis.  Accordingly, I have authorized City employees to work 24 hours around the clock to assist the landfill operators in the remediation effort.  For the long term, a landfill is and always has been critical to the City’s solid waste management plan.  Prior to the storm, I appointed a blue-ribbon landfill siting committee to explore supplemental or replacement sites.

That committee met for the first time on January 20.  Also, I expect a third boiler at Oahu’s H-power plant to be operational by the middle of next year.  The third boiler will dramatically reduce the amount of waste required to go to a landfill.


Once again, there were no deaths related to this major and unprecedented storm.  To the best of my knowledge, there were no broken bones, no major injuries, no infections, no outbreak of disease or large scale loss of property.

Waste Management continues working around the clock to complete an interceptor drainage channel along the ridgeline.  We cannot say if this channel was completed, this event could have been avoided.  But it would most likely been much less severe.

I hope the hearing is productive.

Peter Carlisle is the Mayor of the City & County of Honolulu. He offered this testimony on Monday, January 24, to the Honolulu City Council