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Get handle on waste disposal

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It’s hard to see the spill of medical waste amid the runoff from a rainstorm as anything other than a signal that Oahu’s waste-disposal concerns deserve the top spot on the city’s job list. Honolulu now finds itself faced with cleaning up not only the aftermath of last week’s deluge but a new stain on its image as a visitor destination.

The overwhelming downpour swamped a portion of the Waimanalo Gulch landfill containing medical waste, which swept into the storm drain and out to sea. Headlines such as "Medical waste spreads down Leeward Coast" do not conjure up pictures anyone wants to see in tourism brochures. They’re more likely to evoke memories of another municipal calamity: sewage spilling into the Ala Wai Canal.

City officials maintain that its contractor at the Waimanalo landfill, Waste Management Systems, sent crews to the scene promptly. But reports and anecdotes suggest that Leeward beachgoers and civilian volunteers rose to the immediate cleanup with a sense of urgency that government officials failed to employ. Since then, officials have put priority on maximizing cleanup efforts — after all, hypodermic needles, sterilized or not, are not what should be floating ashore on public beaches.

Crisis response is far more important than assessing blame, they said — but that’s not entirely right. It’s also important to do a postmortem of what went wrong and report back to the public. Residents need to know that failings have been corrected — if indeed they have been — and that the chance of a recurrence has been reduced as much as possible.

Going forward, there are multiple questions that need to be answered:

» Are there better strategies for disposing of medical waste? Markus Owens, spokesman for the city Department of Environmental Services, said the HPOWER permit from the state Department of Health precludes it from being incinerated there. At the very least, the city must ensure that improved containment systems keeping storm overflow on site are up and running as a matter of course.

» Can the search for an alternative landfill site be accelerated, given that the current permit at Waimanalo lapses in 2012? The next meeting of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Landfill Site Selection, set for 9 a.m. tomorrow in the Mayor’s Conference Room, would be the perfect occasion to discuss that. It’s clear that another site will be needed, because not everything can disappear down the HPOWER chute even under normal circumstances, and in the event of problems, landfills are needed as a fallback.

» For the long term, are there better ways the city can manage its storm runoff, other then to let it all flush into the ocean? The Environmental Protection Agency has given this issue a lot of careful study, with ideas ranging from redirecting rainwater for nonpotable uses to encouraging the use of porous pavement materials so that more of the water seeps back into the earth to replenish the aquifers. The materials are available online for public review ( npdes/home.cfm?program_id=298). Elected officials should discuss ways to promote these strategies in future developments.

The rains of recent weeks have been unusually heavy, but not unprecedented. The city needs to take action on multiple fronts — getting a handle on waste-disposal options and rethinking the way storm runoff is managed — to reduce the chances that it could ever happen again.

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