Honolulu firefighters battled a large trash and warehouse fire today at Hawaiian Waste Systems, the company that was supposed to ship city trash to Washington state but ended up storing tons of plastic trash bundles at its warehouse site when it couldn’t get the necessary permits.
The two-alarm fire, at 91-236 Oihana St. in Campbell Industrial Park, was reported at about 1:30 a.m. It was brought under control about 4 a.m. but there were flare-ups during the day until it was declared extinguished this evening.
The fumes from the fire are highly toxic because “it’s everything you find in the waste stream and none of that is good to breathe,” Fire Capt. Terry Seelig said, and firefighters were in full preventive gear.
There was no need to evacuate the area when the fire began because surrounding businesses were closed. By the time businesses were open, the smoke had subsided and dissipated to the point that it no longer posed a threat to surrounding businesses, he said.
Seelig said about three-quarters of the warehouse was in flames when firefighters arrived. The open-aired facility is about 150 feet by 75 feet and the area of the fire itself about 80 feet by 75 feet, he said.
Firefighters set up what Seelig called "defensive operations" and began shooting water on the flames from outside the warehouse.
“The warehouse is basically brick and metal and the heat of the fire has caused the metal roof beams to twist, compromising their integrity,” Seelig said.
Crews will not go inside the building because of the possibility it might collapse, he said.
"We’ve knocked the fire down so it’s no longer large and free burning," Seelig said. "But there’s a lot of it that’s still slowly burning and smoldering.”
“It’s still not extinguished,” he said. “There’s still a pile of trash that’s in the warehouse that we have to extinguish.”
What firefighters want to do is separate the trash using a heavy-duty excavator, and then extinguish the smoldering material in small sections.
“When it’s a big pile like that, you have to break apart the pile,” he said.
Firefighters are monitoring the back wall of the structure, which abuts a Coca-Cola facility. Employees there have been told to stay away from their back wall.
There was about 20,000 tons of garbage stored at the facility in September. The garbage is being trucked to the HPOWER plant to be burned for energy.
City Environmental Services Director Tim Steinberger said about 10,000 tons have been removed and about 10,000 remained on the site and possible also at an alternate site nearby in Kalaeloa.
Trash was being removed from the bales and separated. About the only items not being accepted at HPOWER were mattresses. And because city policy restricts the number of mattresses going into Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill on any given day due to space and covering material restrictions, a number of mattresses had been stockpiled at the facility, Steinberger said.
Most of the plastic wrapped bales of trash are stored outside of the warehouse. Those were not damaged by the fire, nor was a city-owned scale near the front entrance to the site. Seelig said a large pile of loose trash appears to have caught fire in the warehouse.
Seelig said it’s too early to say how the fire started. Investigators will look at whether it might have been caused by spontaneous combustion, electrical, accidental and other potential causes.
About 40 firefighters in five engines, two ladders and two tankers battled the flames. Three companies are still at the scene.
New firefighters replaced the firefighters when the shift changed at about 8 a.m. Seelig said.
Hawaiian Waste Systems signed a three-year contract with the city to ship plastic-wrapped bales of garbage to Washington. But the city and the company reached an agreement in August to scrap the contract after Hawaiian Waste Systems failed to get federal permits. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order also blocking the plan after the Yakama Nation and others sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop the project, saying its environmental impact had not been adequately studied.
Because of the delay numerous, plastic-wrapped bales of rubbish piled up at Campbell Industrial Park for several months.
Hawaiian Waste Systems began trucking the rubbish to HPOWER on Sept. 29.
As part of the agreement, the city will pay Hawaiian Waste Systems $39 a ton to use the company’s shredder to shred large pieces of garbage, such as mattresses and furniture, for the city so that it can be burned at HPOWER.
The city also waived an estimated $1 million in refuse tipping fees it would normally charge to burn the rubbish.
State Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo said health inspectors will visit the site once firefighters give the OK.