Dealing with the city's trash is harder than you might think
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 3, 2010
"When it comes down to it," the city's website says, "the Department of Environmental Services takes care of everything we don't want anymore ... "
These days, that's a lot.
"We're busy right now, definitely," says Director Tim Steinberger, who finds himself staring at 20,000 tons of trash that's all baled up with nowhere to go, a looming deadline for locating a new landfill, and a consent decree calling for a $5 billion makeover of Honolulu's wastewater system over the next 25 years.
Still, Steinberger is upbeat. Positive even. That's the job, he says. It's what he does.
"The pitch I always give to the new employees coming in is that the Department of Environmental Services probably has a greater impact on public health than all the hospitals in the state combined," Steinberger says.
"We're dealing with preventative issues. It's a big task, yes. But it's a good task."
QUESTION: Can you give us an update on the state of the baled waste that was supposed to go to the mainland?
ANSWER: Currently we are completing a settlement agreement with the contractor (Hawaiian Waste Systems). The agreement states that they are going to locally dispose of the 20,000 tons. They will break it up on their facility site. It will be separated between what is combustible material that will go to H-Power to be converted into electricity, which we sell to Hawaiian Electric, or to material that's not combustible that will have to go to Waimanalo Gulch. We're speculating at this point that it will be about 70 percent H-Power and 30 percent Waimanalo Gulch.
Q: The original plan for shipping waste was to buy time for the third H-Power boiler to be completed (by 2012). How much of a setback has this been?
A: It was an interim type of arrangement designed to take the burden off the landfill. The deal was to take all material you would normally be seeing go to the gulch and dispose of it somewhere else while the H-Power construction continued. The deal we're working on still maximizes what will go H-Power and minimizes what goes to Waimanalo Gulch.
Q: Could you tell us where the city is in terms of identifying a site to replace Waimanalo Gulch landfill?
A: We have consultants on board, and they are establishing landfill siting. The landfill siting committee is a decision-making body, so it's subject to law. We're trying to get as wide and diverse a group as possible -- across the business sector, across environmental groups, across engineering people.
This committee will be reviewing recommendations coming out of the siting study that's going on right now. The siting study basically looks at the whole island, so anything that looks like a broad expanse of land -- a valley, a hole in the ground, you know, we could be talking about Diamond Head crater -- would be considered.
Then you go back through and you say, "OK, what is not on the table, either by regulation or by land use or by agency restrictions?"
At that point you start throwing options out, like Diamond Head, obviously. Others may be objected to because of concerns over ground water contamination. Those sites would be thrown out. Then what's left is what you have to deal with. Those go to the siting committee, which listens to the benefits and downsides of each of those sites.
They may ask for more information: What technologies are out there that could minimize the impact? What's the land use? All this stuff will come under scrutiny. In the end, hopefully, they will come out with one or two sites. And once that is done, then we'll go in and find the best site that protects the environment and costs. And then you start the process.
First you do the PIM (public infrastructure map), then the PIM goes to the City Council for a resolution, so the Council has input at that point. Then you go through land acquisition, which calls for an environmental assessment, in this case an EIS (environmental impact statement). After the EIS then you would do land acquisition by appropriation of money. This again goes to Council. And then you have to appropriate for the construction. You may appropriate both at the same time, but during that time there are lots of opportunities for roadblocks.
Q: There's no way all of this is going to be done before 2012 (when Waimanalo Gulch is scheduled to be shut down), is there?
A: Well, you know an EIS alone takes about 18 months to do, and we're already sitting at almost 18 (months to 2012) right now. So we still have to go through locating a site. And then go through an infrastructure map and adoption of a resolution to start the EIS. There is some work ahead before we can do that.
We will obviously have to start our process over again, to allow us to continue operating at Waimanalo Gulch. We'll have to look at ways to minimize the burden on Waimanalo Gulch.
Q: Realistically, what are the trash options for island this size?
A: We're pretty limited. Years ago when there was lot of discussion about sustainability, when this word first arose in our vocabulary, people started comparing this island to a ship: You have to take care of everything that's aboard. Well, sort of. When a ship comes to port, it dumps its bilges, it dumps its waste. We don't have that luxury. But we do have to be sustainable. We do have to handle our waste, whether it be through recycling, waste to energy and, to a degree, landfills. The last option we really want to do to is to expand landfilling.
We want to increase our recycling ability. Right now we're doing about 500,000 tons a year in recycling. We're looking to see the recycling continue to get better, and it is. With curbside, it's continually improving. We're getting really good response.
Q: The consent decree the city entered into calls for upgrades to Honolulu's wastewater collection system and its two largest treatment plants (at Honouliuli and Sand Island) at a cost of nearly $5 billion over 25 years. What's your assessment of the agreement?
A: It is a lot of work. But we knew we had a lot of work going in. Under the old consent decree -- the 1995 consent decree -- plus the stipulated order that came out in 2007, that work was pretty much identified already, and it's been wrapped into this new consent decree, so we now have one global consent decree instead of multiple actions sitting out there. So while this takes us up to 2020, a lot of this work is still the same involved in the 1995 and 2007 consent decrees and things the city has been working on.
The good deal part of this is now we have a guaranteed 15 years before we have to deal with secondary waste (at Honouliuli), and we're already up to 50 percent secondary. ... At Sand Island we have 25 years, which is the equivalent of five permits. So it also allows you to take care of your collection system up front, which is important because if you have a problem with the collection system, the impact to public health and public access is immediate. It's not something that's "perhaps." You know if you have a backup in your sewer and it's in the street, somebody can get into it. If you have a backup in your system and it backs up into a home, you know you have a problem. We need to take care of that part first.
Once we've done that we have the time to go into the secondary. Also, it allows us to have long-range planning for our treatment facilities. That includes long-range financial planning. It takes a lot of the guesswork out. The bond raters are happy because they know exactly what's coming up.