EPA Orders Additional Safeguards at Waimanalo Gulch Landfill

Adrienne LaFrance/Civil Beat

UPDATED 11/30/11 3:35 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The federal government is requiring immediate action at Waimanalo Gulch landfill to prevent future stormwater violations like the ones that occurred last winter.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued an order Wednesday that confirmed for the first time that there had been violations of the Clean Water Act in January 2011 and December 2010.

The city of Honolulu and landfill operator Waste Management took steps to avert future problems earlier this year, but the EPA order Wednesday made clear that more needs to be done, and in a hurry.

The EPA says landfill operators repeatedly failed to prevent the runoff of water that had been in contact with garbage, failed to control on-site erosion and improperly managed silt from surface water before it was discharged from the site.

"The importance of compliance is to ensure, ultimately, the health and protection of humans and the environment," said EPA compliance officer David Wampler in an interview with Civil Beat on Wednesday. "To ensure that they are not exposed to unnecessarily high levels of pollutants in their water."

The federal order comes after a separate EPA cleanup order earlier this year. Federal officials say that the initial order was completed satisfactorily, but acknowledged that the new order builds upon the previous one, and stems from the same events.

EPA says that on at least three occasions in December 2010 and January 2011, landfill operators violated federal and state laws with regard to the discharge of contaminated water into the ocean.

It was at that time that historic heavy rains caused a near-catastrophic structural failure at the landfill, and officials opted to release a flood of contaminated stormwater into the ocean to prevent such a failure. For days, syringes and other medical waste washed up on nearby beaches.

The EPA required Waste Management to build a stormwater diversion channel to prevent the build-up of water that led to the near-failure. While the first order required that diversion channel to be functional but not necessarily complete, the new order requires Waste Management to complete the project altogether.

"If there is an incident like what happened last year, there will be greater attention paid to it before it happens and then as it unfolds," said Wampler. "I can't speculate as to what might happen in the future. But the fact that they've diverted the water around the landfill and almost completed that (project), that should go a long way toward protecting excessive discharges."

The order also requires Waste Management to evaluate a basin at the foot of the landfill, and to enhance its monitoring of water that is to be discharged into the ocean. Waste Management is already required to take water samples, but it will now be required to do so with more frequency. EPA issued a series of deadlines over the course of the next two months to meet the requirements in the order.

Wampler said that EPA's investigation indicates that there may have been other improper discharges before the storms last winter, but would not go so far as to characterize potential violations as systematic.

"The impact that occurred last winter, our hope is that that will not reoccur this year," Wampler said. "Partly because of what we ordered them to do under the initial order, but this does put additional protections in place."

Wampler said that the current order is "not a penalty action," and he would not comment on whether Waste Management or the city could face federal fines in the future.

UPDATE City Environmental Services Director Tim Steinberger said that Honolulu officials are "evaluating the deadlines imposed by the order."

"Otherwise (the order) seems to be primarily based on information that the EPA has had since last winter's storms," Steinberger wrote in a statement provided to Civil Beat.

Steinberger said the improvements are designed to ensure that "the environment and the public health are even better protected against extreme weather events.”

Officials with Waste Management could not be reached on Wednesday.

Check out the documents associated with the EPA order:


DISCUSSION: Would you swim in the coastal waters near Waimanalo Gulch? What do you think of the EPA's action? Join the conversation below.

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