The Long Road Back To Square One
On Kauai, landfills can’t be built in areas with heavy rainfall because water and garbage don’t mix well. Water could potentially become contaminated by leachate, the contaminated fluid landfills produce, and can potentially leak should the leachate collection system fail.
For this reason, landfills are prohibited in tsunami inundation zones, 100-year flood zones and wetland areas. They’re barred within 300 feet of perennial streams and within 1,000 feet of the shoreline or a water well.
A viable site needs to be at least 60 acres. It also needs community buy-in. And it can’t be built on federal land, state conservation land or land with steep slopes.
This laundry list of landfill exclusion criteria leaves few options on the island.
A pair of county studies in 2001 and 2002 identified eight potential new landfill sites. In 2007, then-Kauai Mayor Bryan Baptiste agreed to an advisory committee to rank them.
Another county study in 2012 reassessed the eight prospective locations. Finding them all technically and legally feasible, the study recommended county officials move ahead with the permitting process for a new landfill on a 270-acre state-owned parcel north of Lihue.
With enough room to absorb Kauai’s 91,066 tons of annual waste for 264 years, the site on Maalo Road offered more than double the capacity than any other contender.
In 2018, the county hosted a series of public meetings to collect community feedback on a draft environmental impact statement for the Maalo site. Public approval of the document is a crucial step before the permitting process can move forward.
But last year the county abandoned its plans at Maalo after the Federal Aviation Administration and the Hawaii Department of Transportation’s Airports Division opposed the project due to the potential for the landfill to increase bird strikes at Lihue Airport, according to county officials.
Landfills attract birds, which can damage aircraft and even injure, sometimes fatally, pilots and passengers.
Although the Maalo site sits just outside of a federally designated airport buffer zone that takes the shape of a six-mile radius around the airport, it’s close enough that federal and state regulators flagged the plan as problematic, according to county officials.
Without FAA and HDOT support, county officials figured their shot to compel state health regulators to allow the Maalo Road landfill would be at risk, and continuing to pursue it could ultimately waste the little time the county has left to forge a solution.
As such, the county is no longer considering building a landfill at the Maalo site, a difficult decision that rendered useless years of work by the Kauai Solid Waste Division.
On the county’s list of potential landfill sites, two other locations — Kalepa and Kipu in Lihue — have also been knocked out of the running due to potential airport proximity concerns.
In September 2020, the Hawaii Legislature passed a bill that became Act 73, a new law that prohibits landfills within a half-mile of a residence, school or hospital. The rule excludes two more options on Kauai’s list of potential landfill sites — Kumukumu in Anahola and Koloa on the island’s south shore.
State lawmakers were considering House Bill 1712 — it died in conference committee last month — which would prohibit waste disposal facilities on important agricultural lands. If such legislation becomes law in the future, it would disqualify another pair of potential Kauai landfill sites — Puu O Papai in Hanapepe and Umi in Kalaheo.
The county has decided to preemptively eliminate these sites from its dwindling list of possibilities to avoid another false start.
What remains? One potential option: Kekaha Mauka, a 176-acre state-owned parcel with less than a quarter of the capacity of the Maalo site.
Located across the highway from the existing Kekaha landfill, Kekaha Mauka offers potential savings due to the ability to re-use infrastructure. It would be the easiest and quickest site to bring online and begin operations. And it’s basically the county’s last shot.
“Take a look at the last administration,” said Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami, referring to former Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. “They had 10 years (to figure this out) and we saw how challenging it is. They threw everything they had at it and they still fell short. The big difference is I don’t have that option. We absolutely have no option but to succeed. It’s on our shoulders to take care of this issue.”
Meanwhile, the amount of solid waste being produced on the island is rising.
“We’re at a point where we have five years left at Kekaha and it takes 10 years to really get a new site going,” said Kauai County Solid Waste Management coordinator Allison Fraley.
It’s a conundrum that could quickly become a public health hazard, said Fraley.
“If you could imagine if your trash wasn’t even picked up for a week, what that would be like if there was nowhere for us to take people’s trash to,” she said. “I mean, we’d have to ship it to the mainland. We’d have to ship it to Oahu. And we’re looking into that because, what if? What if we can’t find a landfill?”