LIHUE — Waste Management Hawaii recently pulled out of its contract with the county to operate Kekaha Landfill, leaving public works officials until the end of the month to figure out how to keep the dump open.
Department of Public Works Fiscal Officer Mike Tresler and Kekaha Landfill supervisor John Ruiz briefed the Kauai County Council at its regular meeting Wednesday about interim plans to maintain operations for the next year and laid out the county’s options for a long-term solution.
Ultimately, Tresler and Ruiz recommended the council allow DPW to assume most of the responsibilities currently performed by Waste Management, a strategy they say requires several million dollars in initial expenses but will be more cost-effective in the long run.
Public works officials began working on a plan to take over landfill operations in September after getting word that Waste Management would most likely not be continuing its annual contract with the county to run Kekaha Landfill, according to county Managing Director Mike Dahilig, who stepped in at Wednesday’s council meeting to help explain the situation.
Dahilig said the county has already contracted with an outside company to staff the landfill for one year, and is working to procure the necessary equipment on a lease-to-own basis that would spread the cost over the next seven years.
The county Finance Department’s website shows three contracts awarded this month for staffing and equipment at Kekaha Landfill. The county will pay Geosyntec Consultants Inc. $795,000 for “technical support for Kekaha Landfill operating permit compliance,” and Hooklifts Hawaii LLC and Hawthorne Pacific Corp. were issued contracts for rental of heavy equipment at a combined monthly cost of just over $110,000, or $1.32 million a year.
Last year, the county paid Waste Management about $2.7 million for a contract that covers things like the use and maintenance of landfill equipment, disposal of special solid waste such as sludge and asbestos, and services like groundwater monitoring.
But according to Tresler, the county would have to negotiate increases up to $6 million in order to keep the contract, a number he said could potentially be cut in half if the county were to own the equipment and staff the landfill using its own employees with the help of outside consultants.
The cost increase was apparently not the only reason contract negotiations between Waste Management and county officials broke down.
Throughout the presentation, both Ruiz and Tresler repeatedly referenced morale issues among county employees at the landfill, which they said were primarily due to chronic equipment failures, a problem they said has been exacerbated by poor maintenance and slow repairs.
Waste Management owns the machinery and is responsible for its upkeep, leaving the county without a leg to stand on when equipment breaks down, which, according to Ruiz, happens on a regular basis.
“Every day it’s a new issue or the same issue,” he told the council. “The men log down every day — at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day — what’s wrong with the machines, and it can go for months that the machines don’t get fixed. So the men are fed up.”
A spokesperson for Waste Management, Lily Quiroa, refuted those claims in a brief email Friday, calling Ruiz’s characterization of the mechanical issues inaccurate.
Asked why Waste Management and county officials were unable to settle on a contract, Quiroa sent the following written statement:
“We formally notified the County of our need to revisit the terms of the contract over a year ago. Unfortunately, we were not able to come to an agreement on several contract terms, therefore Waste Management reached the business decision we could no longer continue to operate the landfill.”
If equipment mechanical problems occur as frequently as Tresler and Ruiz say, it could have already had a significant impact on the landfill’s life expectancy, a particularly troublesome issue at a site that is set to reach capacity in under a decade on an island with no viable alternative for solid-waste disposal.
According to Ruiz, the landfill compactor, a giant, bulldozer-like machine used for spreading and packing down garbage that he described as “the most important piece of equipment that we need to operate the landfill successfully,” broke down roughly a dozen times in the past year. That figure is even more concerning when put into context.
“One day without this compactor, we lose roughly two to three days of air space,” Ruiz said. “In 2019 alone, we operated roughly two months without a compactor. So if you do the math, we lost like four months of air space.”
Two more similar years would take a year off the landfill’s life expectancy, which is seven years at most. A project is underway to expand the capacity of Kekaha Landfill until 2027, but that estimate may be an ambitious one, according to a recent report on Hawaii’s infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which found that Kauai could reach its solid-waste capacity as soon as 2025.
The report said Kauai will need an estimated $15 million to close Kekaha Landfill and an additional $625,000 annually for “postclosure monitoring” and maintenance, noting that, despite recently implemented refuse-disposal fees, funding for the landfill closure “will remain a challenge for the county.”
In short, as Ruiz put it, “Air space is valuable. Air space equals money.”
Plans for a new solid-waste disposal facility to be located on a 270-acre site on Ma‘alo Road in Lihue have been in the works for several years. A wildlife hazard assessment and management plan and environmental impact statement for the proposed site were completed under the previous mayoral administration, but plans may have stalled since then.
In a written response Friday afternoon to inquiries about the status of the new landfill project, a county spokesperson said the county “is having to weigh the costs of construction of that particular landfill,” citing concerns over “debt that would burden taxpayers,” estimating costs “in excess of nine figures.”
“The county needs to take its due diligence and look at alternatives that could be more cost-effective and environmentally friendly for taxpayers,” the spokesperson said.
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.