"If that pile [in the landfill] goes, they're going to have to evacuate everybody who lives mauka of it for about two years,"
Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest garbage handler, has been trying to clean up its image in recent years. A national ad campaign touts its innovative recycling programs with the tag line, "Think Green. Think Waste Management Inc." So when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that the company would pay a massive fine for violating the Clean Air Act at the Pu'uanahulu Landfill in West Hawai'i, it was definitely an off-message moment.
But, the company claims that the site actually has no air pollution problem—that it simply had failed to report air monitoring test results to the EPA. And it has worked out a deal with the EPA and the County of Hawai'i, so that part of the fine will go to fighting a very real environmental problem at the landfill's predecessor in Kona.
Rather than having Waste Management pay the total penalty of $184,400, the EPA agreed to a lesser fine under the condition that the company and the County both chip in to complete a Supplemental Environmental Project that addresses environmental and health concerns at the now-closed Old Kona landfill.
Since the early 1990s, an underground fire has burned beneath a giant earth-and-stone mound of the Old Kona Landfill at Kealakehe in North Kona. As the County's burden, that landfill has been closed since 1995, but must still be monitored because of the danger of noxious fumes from the fire, which have caused problems at a nearby police station, high school, and Humane Society animal shelter.
"[The Old Kona landfill is] on fire in a number of places and it's an aggressive fire," says North Kona County Council candidate Kelly Greenwell, who has been lobbying for action on the fire for years. "It's breaking through right now and there have been a number of occasions where they've had to send equipment out to put it out."
County Environmental Management Director Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd says that the equipment actually was called to put out occasional fires at an adjacent green waste facility. She says the fire in the landfill hasn't actually breached the surface recently, but it has caused sections of the mound to collapse inward.
Greenwell's general election opponent, Debbie Hecht, also believes that something needs to be done about the smoldering landfill.
"This is yet one more example of superstructure failure in West Hawai'i," says Hecht. "It's like the sewer plant at Kealakehe that needs to be upgraded, connector roads that need to be built, and upgrading our parks …"
"It's on fire in a number of places and it's an aggressive fire," says North Kona County Council candidate Kelly Greenwell, who has been lobbying for action on the fire for years.
The underground flames feed on methane and other gasses generated from rotting garbage. In the past, the county has attempted to fight the fire by piling more dirt and rock atop it, by installing a sprinkler system to soak the mound, and by venting the gas out to be flared away or harnessed for energy. Nothing has worked.
Leithead-Todd notes that with increasing urbanization of the area, the stakes are rising. She notes that the Department of Hawaiian Homelands may be developing land just uphill from the old landfill; to the right of the DHHL land, a "very large state affordable housing project" is slated to go.
"If that pile [in the landfill] goes, they're going to have to evacuate everybody who lives mauka of it for about two years," says Greenwell, who estimates that such an evacuation would affect about 2,500 people.
When Waste Management's air pollution monitoring problem came to light, someone saw the opportunity to kill two birds with one fine.
According to the EPA's press release on the settlement, Waste Management will pay $33,500 to the EPA and at least $184,400 to the County, which will use the money to "heat map" the fire and experiment with a new fire-fighting technique: pumping fire-retardant foam into the mound.
Leithead-Todd has a somewhat different version: she says the entire fire suppression project would cost $184,000, and Waste Management is only chipping in $101,000; the county will have to make up the difference. Contrary to a report in The Honolulu Advertiser, however, Leithead-Todd says the county is not being fined for the reporting violation at the Pu'uanahulu landfill site.
There's confusion about what happened at Pu'uanahulu, too. No one is claiming that the landfill is leaking a significant amount of noxious gases into the atmosphere. But Waste Management was required to test for such leaks, and failed to file required reports on those tests with the EPA from 1991 to 1995. Leithead-Todd told this reporter that Waste Management had "failed to do the sampling." Waste Management spokesperson Russell Nanad says his company had actually performed the required tests; but that it mistakenly reported the results to the Hawai'i Department of Health instead of to the EPA.
Water from Above, Oxygen from Below
One thing is certain: while Waste Management has a long history of regulatory violations at other facilities, and many of its fines elsewhere have run into the millions (Google "Waste Management Inc" + "Clean Air Act" + violation, to see some examples), the fire and the noxious gasses at the Old Kona Landfill were not of its doing. That landfill was run by the County of Hawai'i.
Ironically, Leithead-Todd says she knows of no EPA fines for the situation at the old Kona Landfill.
In the 1990s, County Council and then-Mayor Steven Yamashiro decided to close the old landfill and open a new one, rather than replace the landfill with new waste-reduction technologies, such a digester or a waste-to-energy facility. The Yamashiro administration awarded the contract to Waste Management, which had made substantial contributions to Yamashiro's campaign fund (and to those of many councilmembers, including then-councilmember Leithead-Todd).
"In an area such as Kona, you have to worry about whether that water goes down and hits ground water."
Unlike the Pu'uanahulu facility, which was designed to meet new, tougher environmental regulations, the old Kona site has no lining to keep fluids from leaching out or air from filtering in. That lack has hindered past attempts to control the fire. Soak the mound with water, for instance, and the water may end up where it's not wanted.
"You have to be careful about water," says Leithead-Todd. "In an area such as Kona, you have to worry about whether that water goes down and hits ground water."
Water also is used by bacteria to digest garbage. And, as Greenwell points out, that digestive process generates heat that can cause spontaneous combustion, which is what probably caused the landfill fire to start with.
Leithead-Todd says that the fire may be receiving oxygen from a lava tube below the dump. Greenwell, who comes from an old Kama'aina ranch family, confirms the presence of such a tube—a huge one. He says his family used to rent the land where the old landfill is now located, and that the site was chosen for a dump because there were already "two gigantic holes there" from a collapsed lava tube.
If Not Foam, Then What?
Hecht worries that the new fire suppression project will turn out to be "just another study." She's not sure the heat-mapping and foam are the best solution to the problem.
"I think we need to study the different options, pick the top three, get bids from three different companies on each option, and then choose one," she says.
She's not the only one who's skeptical. Nanad says that that Pu'uanahulu had its own system for suppressing fires, but that it didn't use foam. He explains that if the County put out a request for proposals for the fire suppression project, Waste Management wouldn't be bidding. Greenwell says Nanad had told him that he didn't think the foam would work.
If all else fails, according to Leithead-Todd, the county may have to reopen the landfill to extinguish the fire, then haul the entire mess to Pu'uanahulu, at an estimated cost of more than $25 million.
"Let them tell the world what a wonderful green thing they're doing in the Hawaiian Islands by bioremediating this old dump in Hawai'i that's on fire."
If that happens, then Waste Management could get its money back with interest.
Greenwell isn't requesting alternatives. He has long advocated using a technology called "aerobic digestion" to convert most of the dump's contents into soil amendments. Aerobic digestion actually uses bacteria to break down the garbage, in a process similar to the one that probably started the fires—except the digesters can control the heat and accelerate the process. At one point, he says, he paid for a junket by some council members to see such a plant that was being run on the mainland by a company called Bedminster Bioconversion, but that Yamashiro refused to consider it.
Leithead-Todd points to the report of the contractor that the county hired to create its waste management plan, which found that aerobic digestion because it had technical problems and was commercially unproven.
Greenwell says he recently met with Waste Management officials and that they had expressed an interest in setting up a digester operation at Pu'uanahulu. He notes that topsoil "sells for $125 a cubic yard right now" on the Kona Coast, and that soil amendments would reduce fertilizer runoff from golf courses, which can cause problems with the area's coral reefs. He estimates that the old Kona Landfill could be converted to "approximately $600 million worth of product."
After the old site is cleaned he says, it would be a good place to put a new Kona hospital. If that requires making the 800-lb gorilla of the garbage world look good, then so be it.
"We have to get Waste Management involved in this, because if you don't, they'll hold us up on anything that we'll try to do …," Greenwell says. "Let them tell the world what a wonderful green thing they're doing in the Hawaiian Islands by bioremediating this old dump in Hawai'i that's on fire."