Sunday, November 29, 2015         

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Medical waste spreads down Leeward Coast

Determining responsibility for last week's discharge takes a back seat to cleanup efforts

By B.J. Reyes


Medical waste and other trash continued to soil Leeward Coast beaches yesterday, washing ashore in spots farther down the shore from where the debris was initially found.

City crews struggled to clean up the mess unleashed last week when heavy rain overwhelmed the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill.

City officials say it is too early to assess blame for the massive discharge. No timetable has been set, and no discussion of blame or fines has occurred yet, officials said.

"There's plenty of time in the future to be able to look back ... and assess and figure out who is responsible, what could we all have done better," said acting Mayor Doug Chin, who is also city managing director. "Right now I think we're just trying to get ourselves through this (cleanup) phase; that's probably the most important thing."

Chin went to the Leeward Coast yesterday to get a firsthand look at the damage to the landfill, the discharge and cleanup effort.

Heavy rain caused a runoff of storm water and significant discharge of debris, including the medical waste, from the landfill into the ocean Thursday. The debris has been washing up on beaches.

"Certainly what happened a couple days ago was a very serious event," Chin said. "However, it seems like we're now on the same page with the state, as well as with (landfill operator) Waste Management and the (Environmental Protection Agency) as far as taking what has occurred and really starting to clean up and fix what is out there."


Anyone who finds medical waste is urged to report the finding to Waste Management through its hot line at 668-2985.

Meanwhile, medical waste continued washing ashore as crews from Waste Management and volunteers combed the coastline.

Barbara Billand, a volunteer with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Response Team, said her group found a vial of blood, more than a dozen syringes and a bag of plastic medical tubing over the past two days while scouring White Plains, Nimitz and Maipalaoa beaches. The group began its cleanup out of concern over a monk seal in the area that was last seen Saturday at White Plains.

"We are concerned not just for people, but for the monk seals," Billand said.

The Department of Health issued a statement Sunday saying Waste Management had provided documentation showing the medical waste had been sterilized and was not considered infectious, although the public still was at risk of puncture wounds.

"As unsightly as they are, they should not be any more infectious than the rest of the (ocean trash) that's floating out there," Gary Gill, acting deputy health director, said yesterday.

Chin said teams have been checking bacteria levels in the water since the initial spill, and recent readings have shown contamination levels returning to normal levels.

Officials from all agencies have said they were satisfied with Waste Management's handling of the cleanup.

Joe Whelan, the company's general manager, said crews have been out on beaches since Friday and plan to return tomorrow. The amount of trash being collected has gone down, with crews returning today with just one 40-gallon bag.

"We'll be doing that until were consistently not seeing anything," Whelan said.

Crews have been assisted by members of the city Ocean Safety Division and lifeguards who have been asked to report any sightings of debris.

Waste Management also took steps to ensure that any new storm water would be contained on the landfill property.

The landfill remains closed as crews repair damage caused by the storm.

Chin said it is expected to reopen by Saturday. In the meantime the city has suspended curbside collection of some bulky trash items, including couches, carpets and other "soft" material that is usually taken to the landfill. Metal items such as washers and dryers may still be left out on the appropriate pickup date.

Chin said he has been in constant contact by phone with Mayor Peter Carlisle, who is in Washington, D.C., this week for the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors.

"He's been completely briefed on this issue form the very get-go, and he considers this to be a very serious event," Chin said.

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