The state Department of Public Safety has been fined $23,300 for burning documents and pornographic videotapes last November at Kulani Correctional Facility on the Big Island.
Department Director Clayton Frank said prison officials had checked with the Hawaii County fire department and believed they received the OK to burn the materials, thus saving an estimated $15,000 it would have cost to shred them.
But the state Department of Health fined Public Safety on Sept. 30 for open burning without a permit.
Burning "documents and videotapes — plastics– those are just not good for the environment," Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo said, adding that Big Island residents are already subject to vog.
"It would have been much better had they shredded it or disposed of it properly," Okubo said. "I guess they were thinking it would be less expensive to burn it, but it’s not that expensive to shred documents these days."
The burning took place over 14 days in a barrel and an open pit. The maximum fine in such cases is $10,000 per day. Frank said the fine imposed was smaller because of Public Safety officials’ cooperation with the investigation.
"At the time, our staff didn’t realize it was illegal," Frank said. "We had checked with the fire department and apparently they said it was OK."
Kulani officials had been looking for alternatives to shredding the nonconfidential documents because one cost estimate was $15,000 for 400 boxes, Frank said.
The Health Department learned of the violations after it was revealed at an April special hearing of the Senate Public Safety Committee.
Committee Chairman Sen. Will Espero, who called the special hearing and had initiated an investigation, said the governor and Public Safety officials’ rush to close Kulani and transfer it to the Department of Defense for a youth program may have played a part in the action.
"They told everybody they were going to close it (the prison) last November," he said. "That started the whole burn mentality."
"There are some who believe that whole process was pushed and rushed so that the Legislature would not be able to look at it come the January 2010 session," Espero said.
"Had we had the chance, there may have been people who would have wanted to block the closure. The closure was not our decision."