Climate Change Will Make It Harder To Protect The Environment Around Oahu’s Next Landfill

The beaches were monitored using syringes, catheters, raw sewage and other rubbish.

In late 2010 and early 2011, heavy rains caused the Leeward Reservoir to overflow over Oahu’s only municipal landfill, Emmanalo Gulch. The filtration system has flooded the landfill and backup storage ponds, and millions of gallons of polluted water have inundated the sands of the Ko Olina resort and nearby beaches, from Iwa to Nanakoli.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has sued the landfill owner, charging the operators with “intentionally discharging pollutants into US waters” and repeatedly lying to state and federal health officials about an adequate stormwater system. The landfill operators admitted to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act, paid $400,000 in criminal fines, $200,000 in compensation to local businesses and spent thousands of dollars upgrading the stormwater drainage system in the following years.

Rainwater Drainage System in Waimanalo Gulch
In January 2011, Waimanalo Gulch’s filtration system was inundated with stormwater and debris that eventually emptied into Westside shores. Ko Kawanui / Civil Pet / 2021

The landfill manager called the two storms that inundated the landfill in December 2010 and January 2011 “two consecutive storms for 100 years”, but climate change is expected to make these storms more frequent and possibly more severe.

The city and county of Honolulu is working to select the site for its next landfill on Oahu, raising questions about which site is least affected by climate change and what additional infrastructure is needed to protect the environment from global warming.

Prepare for the future by learning from the past

The precipitation and trade winds in Hawaii are caused by pockets of warm air spreading from the equator to the poles and back again. Rising temperatures will alter these patterns, and the state has already seen a decrease in the frequency and intensity of the northeast trade winds since 1973.

Warmer temperatures lead to more ocean evaporation, which means more moisture in the atmosphere and more precipitation. According to Hawaiian climatologist Bao Xin Zhu, there is a 7% increase in atmospheric humidity for every one degree increase in ocean temperatures. Over the past 50 years, there has already been an increase in extreme rain events on the islands, and research suggests that southern Oahu should prepare for more periods of heavy rainfall.

But when atmospheric winds change and carry moisture-laden clouds away from the islands, these increased temperatures dry out the soil and vegetation, making droughts longer and more intense. Hawaii has already experienced increasing droughts since 2008.

Taken together, climate change means there will be more water when it isn’t as needed and less when it is.

While there are very complex and accurate models to predict climate impacts on a global scale, determining the potential change in precipitation in a specific small area is very difficult.

The location of the new landfill on Oahu is limited to locations that are not colored on this map, according to the city’s Department of Environmental Services. City and County of Honolulu

said Michael O’Keefe, deputy director of the Honolulu Division of Environmental Services.

There are four potential areas where the island’s next landfill could be built, and several potential locations within each area.

Two large areas on the North Shore are under consideration, an issue the North Shore District Council will discuss in January.

One near Wheeler Army Airfield. Another place is located between the Makakilo Hills and Kunia. Anthony Makana, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Kabuli District of Paris, noted that the Environmental Justice Subcommittee has received concerns from community members about the proximity of potential new sites to the Iowa Aquifer, the Honolioli National Historic Site and the University of Hawaii West Oahu campus.

The nine-member Board of Directors has until December 31, 2022 to recommend a new landfill site. At its next meeting on February 7, the committee will finalize a list of criteria that will be used to register and classify potential landfill sites. The draft list contains the potential impact of the site on groundwater that is assessed along with the site’s distance from H-Power, construction costs, landfill capacity and the impact of rainfall among other considerations.

Civil Pete requested interviews with each member of the advisory panel about how they considered the impact of climate change on decision-making. Most people felt it was “too early” in the process of discussing climate impacts, Marcus Owens, a spokesman for the Honolulu Department of Environmental Services, said in an email.

The impact of increased rainfall was a hot topic at the committee’s last meeting in mid-December after the Water Supply Board raised concerns that the upcoming landfill could contaminate the island’s groundwater.

Due to the overlap between local, state, and federal regulations, the four potential dump areas lie above potable water aquifers. Mike Kaiser, senior project manager for HDR, a construction company that is consulting with the city on the new landfill, gave a presentation at the meeting on several safety components being built at a modern landfill.

These include pipes under the landfill to collect leachate or contaminated water that seeps from the landfill. The filtrate is pumped regularly and regulations do not allow more than 12 inches of contaminated water to be in these pipes at any one time.

But Cynthia Residents, a panelist and former member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Board, noted that the same regulations were in place before the 2010-2011 storms, and that landfill operators knowingly violated many of the rules.

In 2013, Waimanalo Gulch and the city also paid a civil fine of $1.1 million after emitting aerobic toxins, organic compounds, and the potent greenhouse gas methane from 2002 to 2005, which violated the Clean Air Act.

“I’ll be the first to admit that we made a lot of mistakes in the past and definitely try to learn from them,” city planner Josh Nagashima said in response to Rezentes’ questions about the filter.

Making landfill ‘more robust’

“The Waimanalo Gulch landfill has a robust waste collection system, which was made even more robust after the complete fiasco with the spill at Ko Olina,” said O’Keefe, of the Department of Environmental Services. “But for the new landfill, we’ll look at making it more robust.”

The city is pushing for the new landfill to have a double-liner system, which exceeds federal requirements and can significantly increase costs. The Waimanalo Gulch sanitary landfill opened with a single line system in 1989, but since 2010 all new construction on the site has used a dual line system.

Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill, Oahu’s only local landfill, is located within the Ko Olina Resort, the Honokai Hill community of Kabul, and Campbell Industrial Park.

Waimanalo Gulch currently has nine observation wells, where water and soil samples are periodically tested to see if any contaminants have seeped from the landfill. No leaks have been detected at Waimanalo Gulch, and O’Keefe wants the next landfill to have more monitoring wells.

“There is concern about the proximity of the landfill to sensitive natural resources, including the fresh water drinking system,” he said.

But each additional protection brings additional costs.

Before the 2010-2011 storm, Waimanalo Gulch invested $15 million in a new dam and stormwater diversion system. After the surplus, additional upgrades were made in the thousands of dollars.

After the 2013 Clean Air Act was settled, the landfill operator said it spent $1.5 million to design and build a gas collection and control system.

“Because we don’t have a site yet, we have no real idea how much such actions will cost,” O’Keefe said. “Depending on the location, mitigation measures vary greatly, in fact.”

Dehydration is not the least of a concern but it can also increase costs. Landfill workers constantly spray water over the site to dampen dust and prevent particles from blowing into the surrounding areas. A long dry period can affect the cost of water, but O’Keefe said from a purely management perspective, a dry area is much better than a wet area.

“Of all the impacts related to climate change that we can face, drought may be the most easily dealt with,” he said. “The main challenge for landfill management is the rainwater that leads to leachate. So the less rain, the less leachate will flow and the job may be easier.”

Latest estimates expect the new landfill to cost $210 million, span 80 acres, and be open for 20 years. That’s part of the reason why the Department of Environmental Services is devoting a large portion of 2022 to reducing waste, extending landfill life, and trying to reduce the carbon footprint of the island’s waste management system.

A poor chart showing the flow of waste on Oahu.  Most municipal waste goes to H-Power or is recycled, and a small amount goes directly to landfill.  Ash from H-Power goes to landfill.  Most construction and demolition waste is recycled, and only a small amount goes to landfill.  Overall, about 84% of Oahu waste was diverted from landfill in 2020.
Claire Caulfield / Civil Pet / 2021 • Source: City and County of Honolulu, Department of Environmental Services • Diagram created with SankeyMATIC

Mitigating the effects of climate change

Although transportation and energy production produce the bulk of Hawaii’s carbon emissions, waste management still has a significant impact on the state’s carbon footprint.

To counteract his sector’s emissions, O’Keefe is focused on reducing the amount of waste that must be brought to H-Power, the island’s waste-to-energy incinerator.

“H-Power saves literally hundreds, hundreds, hundreds of thousands of tons of waste from having to bury it in waste every year,” he said. “But the combustion process that takes place emits greenhouse gases.”

H-Power generates about 10% of the island’s electricity, and emits 746,228 metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2020, making it the fourth highest emitter in the state. Garbage trucks that transport 94% of the island’s waste to H-Power and then transport the remaining ash to landfill consume a lot of gasoline, and the Waimanalo landfill released 25,602 metric tons of methane last year.

“That’s why in the new year we’ll have a resource reduction working group that will come together and discuss how we can influence policy to reduce the amount of waste that is initially created,” O’Keefe said. .

O’Keefe said the group will look into opportunities to compost food waste, reduce packaging, and use food and sewage waste to generate electricity.

“We really want to come up with initiatives that will mitigate the effects of climate change,” he said.

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