City still seeks more time to find Oahu landfill alternative

Apr. 4—Waimanalo Gulch Landfill, which opened in 1989, was originally slated to close eight years later, by 1997. The city now says the 200-acre dump is scheduled to close by 2028.

The Honolulu Planning Commission on Wednesday continued its months-long hearing over the city's request for a two-year extension to find an alternate site for the 34-year-old Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill in Kapolei.

Much as it has since August, the contested case hearing focused on the request by the city Department of Environmental Services in December 2022 to amend a special-use permit that the state Land Use Commission granted to the city in 2019.

If approved, the prior deadline to identify an alternate landfill site would be extended to Dec. 31—a looming date now about eight months away—from its original date, Dec. 31, 2022.

Waimanalo Gulch Landfill, which opened in 1989, was originally slated to close eight years later, by 1997. The city now says the existing 200-acre dump is scheduled to close by 2028.

Before the meeting, the city confirmed the Planning Commission crafted a draft decision in this case. However, the commission will have until June 3 to issue its final written decision. At the meeting, the panel took no formal action.

Meantime, during a largely procedural process, the commission received brief oral arguments over legal documents that the Environmental Services (ENV ) department as well as two third-party "intervenors " filed on March 27 in the landfill siting case.

The third parties include Ko Olina Community Association Inc., or KOCA, and state Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, stating objections to the presence of the existing landfill near that neighborhood and their wish to see its operations end.

Conversely, Schnitzer Steel Hawaii Corp. supports the city's current landfill because the company uses the dump to legally dispose of metal waste.

In October, city Environmental Services Director Roger Babcock testified before the Planning Commission on the city's need to find an alternate landfill.

Babcock's testimony related to amending or rescinding an existing state law, Act. 73, that placed restrictions on locating waste disposal facilities, particularly those close to conservation lands or near half-mile "buffer zones, " near residential areas, schools or hospitals, as well as close to airports or tsunami-inundation zones.

During his Oct. 18 testimony, Babcock said it might be too difficult to amend this state law, at least for the time being. Rather, the director said, a new landfill site might be acquired through eminent domain of private property or on land owned by the military or federal government.

To that end, four possible alternate sites—all on federally owned land in West Oahu and the Windward side—are under consideration to replace the Waimanalo Gulch landfill, Babcock said. They include Lualualei in Waianae, Iroquois Point and Waipio Peninsula near Pearl Harbor, and a property near Bellows Beach in Waimanalo.

Six prior sites for a new landfill were rejected in October 2022 following a presentation by Board of Water Supply Manager Ernest Lau and Deputy Manager Erwin Kawata, who urged Mayor Rick Blangiardi's Landfill Advisory Committee not to place any landfill in the so-called "no pass zone, " an area that covers the interior of the island where Oahu's potable water aquifer is located. The prior proposed sites, all in Central Oahu and the North Shore, were in that zone.

In October, Babcock told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the latest four sites were "on a list of all of the potential military lands that were just inside of the 'no pass zone, ' and don't have other restrictions barring their use."

During Wednesday's meeting, city Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffrey Hu reiterated part of the city's position that except for possible locations on federally owned lands, no other landfill sites were available.

"When the BWS no-pass zone and Act 73 are applied as restrictions, there were zero potential alternative landfill sites on Oahu, outside of federal lands, " Hu said.

Cal Chipchase, an attorney representing KOCA, disputed that claim. "That the finding as proposed is incomplete because eminent domain, of course, is an option, " he said. "And that, therefore frees up a host of other potential sites that could be acquired by eminent domain."

But Hu asserted Act 73—and accompanying half-mile "buffer zones " near residential properties—would negate use of eminent domain.

"If we eminent domain an entire half-mile radius then we have plenty of sites, but that's not going to be the case, " Hu said.

Commission Vice Chair Ryan Kamo questioned the city over its delay in filing for a two-year extension, days before a Dec. 31, 2022, deadline to locate a new landfill site. "Why was that filed so late, nine days before the actual deadline ?" Kamo asked.

Hu replied "it was filed late because we tried to do as much as we (could ) to meet that deadline, " adding that "it takes a little time to draft the application."

"So by the time it was filed it was already nine days out, " Hu added.

Kamo noted that "these proceedings have taken a while since we initially started our discussions."

"And the extension that we're considering now is going up until Dec. 31, 2024, which doesn't leave us a whole lot of time, and if we don't meet that deadline, I have a strong feeling that we'll be in the same boat, " Kamo said. "What types of assurances do we have that this time the city's going to make more progress ?"

Hu replied, "Frankly, I cannot give you an assurance other than that we've got the mayor and managing director out there discussing with our federal counterparts " use of federal land for a landfill.

"The city administration, not just ENV, is heavily interested in finding that next landfill site, " Hu said. "With the federal lands, to my knowledge, there's no other legal way to obtain them, so we're kind of at their whims."

But Kamo asked, "Do we still feel like the Dec. 31 deadline is achievable ?"

"Yes, " said Hu, "that's what we believe."

Kamo asked if there will be "specific milestones " to track and "to make sure that we can meet this deadline ?"

"I think it was ENV's intent to just follow what's required in the draft proposal, " Hu said, "and I guess those are the milestones that ENV would be presenting at the in-person reporting to the Planning Commission."

The Planning Commission's next scheduled meeting is May 15.