POSTED: 1:49 p.m. HST, Apr 30, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 2:51 p.m. HST, Apr 30, 2014
A federal grand jury handed down an indictment Wednesday against managers of the city's Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill in connection with a series of storm water overflows that caused trash, including syringes and other medical waste, to flow into the ocean and wash back ashore at Ko Olina and other Leeward Oahu beaches over three years ago.
The 13-count indictment charges violations of the federal Clean Water Act by Waste Management of Hawaii, which designed, built and has operated the Kahe Point landfill since 1989. Houston-based parent company Waste Management Inc. is among the largest solid waste disposal companies in the United States.
The last of the three major rainstorms occurred on Jan. 13, 2011, causing wastewater to overflow from one of the cells of the landfill and into the ocean. Reports of debris washing up came from Leeward beaches from Kalaeloa's White Sands to Maipalaoa in Maili.
WMH general manager and vice president Joseph Whelan and environmental protection manager Justin Lottig, both defendants in the indictment, could face time in federal prison if found guilty of allegations. Both are still in their positions with the company.
If convicted, the company faces a maximum criminal fine of $500,000 for each count.
The state Department of Health said Waste Management provided documentation showing medical waste had been sterilized and was not considered infectious, although the public still was at risk of puncture wounds. Warning signs, however, were not removed for nearly two weeks.
The landfill, the only one on Oahu that accepts municipal waste, was closed nearly two months to the general public after the January 2011 overflow.
Last November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the city and Waste Management to take immediate steps to address their violations and avoid a repeat occurrence of the overflow. The company was ordered to complete work on equipment to separate storm water generated outside of the landfill from storm water generated within the landfill.
William McCorriston, WMH attorney, said the indictment is without basis, and "reckless and ill-advised" on the part of local U.S. attorneys. The company's employees acted immediately and "heroically" to prevent damage to life and property, including diverting flood water away from the nearby Hawaiian Electric power plant, he said.
The company issued a statement saying, "We believe there is no basis for these charges by the U.S. Attorney's Office and we intend to vigorously defend against this extraordinary action."
"We operate our facilities with the utmost regard for the health and safety of employees, neighbors and the environment," company officials said.
City Environmental Services Director Lori Kahikina said Wednesday in a statement that corrective action has been taken to avoid a recurrence. "The city is satisfied with the ongoing operations of the landfill," she said. The city will not comment on the litigation, Kahikina added.