The city will need to close the contentious Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill at Kahe Point by March 2, 2028, under a permit granted by the state Land Use Commission Thursday by a 6-2 vote.
While the city will be able to expand and extend the life of the landfill by nearly nine years, it had asked to be given until the landfill “reaches capacity” instead of a set closure date.
The Honolulu Planning Commission, earlier this year, recommended that the LUC approve a permit allowing the landfill to stay open until it reaches capacity so the LUC’s decision is a victory for those who wanted to ensure that the new permit included a definitive closure deadline.
Attorneys for the parties must now submit their own “findings of fact and conclusions of law” by Oct. 18, from which LUC staff will craft a draft final decision for the commission to act on by Oct. 31. The commission still may decide to change the wording to their liking before the final vote.
For years critics have argued that a string of mayors and city councils have done little to keep the city’s promise to the West Oahu community to close the 30-year old landfill and instead have been taking steps to prevent its shutdown.
The application for the special-use permit actually was filed in 2009 but has been bouncing between the LUC, the Planning Commission and the courts without resolution.
The Ko Olina Community Association and state Sen. Maile Shimabukuro (D, Kalaeloa-Waianae-Makaha) have sought to shut down the facility while a separate effort to do the same was sought by former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who preceded Shimabukuro as the area’s state senator. Both have been designated intervenors in the case.
“We’re pleased with the result, we’re pleased to finally have a date certain for closure of the landfill,” said Calvert Chipchase, a community association attorney. “And we’re particularly pleased that all of the commissioners recognized the harm to the Leeward Coast and expressed that … they recognized the harm that the landfill had caused all these years.”
The association had proposed that the landfill be required to close by March 2027.
Hanabusa, meanwhile, maintains that the landfill has been operating illegally without necessary permits. Richard N. Wurdeman, Hanabusa’s attorney, insisted the LUC deny the permit and allow the facility to immediately close.
City Environmental Services Director Lori Kahikina said she and other city officials will now regroup and determine their next move. Asked if the city would be able to have a new landfill selected, procured and ready to go by March 2028, Kahikina replied “I’m really not sure.”
The city would not only need to purchase the property, it would need to go through an environmental review process before work on the new site could begin, she said.
The city’s position in recent years has been that it cannot determine a closure date given new technology that allows the city to divert solid waste away from the landfill. The city has noted that most of its waste no longer goes to the landfill, but that the facility needs to stay open for disposal of ash and residue from HPOWER (the city’s waste to energy plant); debris from unanticipated natural disasters; and when HPOWER closes for two weeks for scheduled maintenance.
Commissioners, however, pointed out that the only record they had of anyone giving a possible closure date was when former Environmental Services Director Tim Steinberger in 2011 estimated the landfill would fill up in about 15 years. They noted that Steinberger also estimated it would take about seven years to relocate the landfill.
After nearly two full days of hearing testimony, LUC members on Thursday struggled with the issue and in fact voted on several other possible outcomes before reaching the 6-2 decision, which was opposed by Commission Chairman Jonathan Scheuer and Commissioner Dawn Chang.
One of the other votes was to reject the permit entirely, a motion that failed to pass when commissioners deadlocked with a 4-4 vote.
The commission also voted down a motion to send the matter back to the Planning Commission with specific instructions to reopen the record of evidence, examine the facts, and come up with a definitive closure date. But Scheuer, as did several other commissioners, said they had little faith that either the commission or the city administration would do as the LUC instructed.
Despite their disagreement on how to proceed, LUC members appeared unified in voicing their frustration with the Caldwell administration and the Planning Commission, which is required by state law to gather the evidence and give a recommendation to the state panel on special-use permits.
Several blasted the city for its failure to be more proactive in either finding a new site or providing a clearer explanation of why the existing facility should stay open. The commissioners said that failure put them in the unenviable position of
deciding whether to allow Oahu’s only municipal landfill to close or allow the West Oahu community to continue to carry the burden.
Commission Vice Chairwoman Nancy Cabral said that the anticipated closure date of the landfill has changed a dizzying number of times since it opened in 1989. “And then instead of it being a date, now it’s ‘when it reaches capacity,’ and capacity was 15 years back in ‘03 and now it’s 20 years from today,” she said.
“It seems like this ball keeps getting pushed further out and I think that’s where the community and everybody is like ‘Whoa!’”
Commissioner Gary Okuda said the city has made false promises to the Leeward Coast community. “If we in government say something, we should stand behind our word, and if we’re not going to stand behind our word, we need to make clear on the record with admissible evidence why there is a change in position.
“I think there is something from a public policy standpoint that is fundamentally wrong where certain types of negative public facilities like a landfill seem to end up on the Waianae or Leeward Coast and not in other neighborhoods,” he said.
Commissioner Dan Giovanni said he’s “disappointed and disturbed by how the (city) has performed since 2012 … basically ignoring the fact that it doesn’t have a permit and just continued to operate without seeking a remedy to that situation.”
“The Leeward Coast people are taking a hit and they’re not getting anything back,” Commissioner Arnold Wong said. “We’re giving them the burden of taking all our stuff.”
Several commissioners said that special-use permits are typically reserved for temporary situations where a type of use is being proposed for what normally would not be allowed. In the case of the landfill, the city is operating on land that’s been designated as being in the agriculture district.
“That’s a long time for a special-use permit,” Wong said.
Those commissioners suggested that if the city wanted a landfill that was to be in operation for decades, it should have — and still can — seek from the LUC a more highly scrutinized district boundary amendment to place the property in the urban district.
Several of the parties involved in the proceedings said that whatever the LUC’s decision Thursday, they expected those unhappy with the result to challenge the panel’s action through lawsuits.
For a timeline of the issue, go to: 808ne.ws/2rk1DPI .