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Oahu faces hill of rubbish

By MALIA ZIMMERMAN, A UPI Outside view commentary   |   July 27, 2002 at 7:40 PM   |   Comments

KAILUA, Hawaii, July 26 (UPI) -- A four-lane highway sits between the two-bedroom aging home Ruth Gabaylo rents and works from on Kahe Point in Waianae on the island of Oahu, and a vibrant deserted country beach with sapphire waters rushing over iridescent sands.

But behind her home, in stark contrast to the pure property before her, is the only landfill on Hawaii's main island for the garbage of nearly one million people.

The landfill, known as the Waimanalo Gulch, reeks of putrid garbage, fountains of ash from trash burned at the nearby waste-to-power plant called H-Power, and dried sewage hauled in from sewage treatment facilities.

The black grimy ash, unburnable trash such as plastic garbage bags and the overpowering smell of rotten milk are carried on the back of the tropical breeze right into Gabaylo's yard and home.

Though she wipes down the inside of her home three times a day, there is no way to prevent a build up of grime on everything from her bed, to the children's toys, to the dishes sitting out to dry. Even the tissues her two girls Cayenne, 1, and Cinnamon, 3, blow their nose on when their asthma and allergies overwhelm them can't remain fresh.

"Even our laundry smells stink, like sour milk and it don't wash out no matter what kind of fabric softener or soap we use," says Ruth Gabaylo. "And in my house, I use toilet spray all year long because my house smells like a toilet, but it doesn't stay."

She's tried to use a new air conditioner her family saved for, but it costs too much to run.

For the people who live in Kahe Point and other nearby homes, it wasn't always that way. The residents say just over 11 years ago, the city condemned an 80-acre parcel of untouched land, most of it in a nearby valley, and began dumping there. The plan was to close the landfill when it reached its capacity or by 2004, they say.

The only problem was the landfill filled up much faster than the city administrators had estimated and in fact, the city estimates the landfill will max out its capacity within weeks.

Now Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris hopes to expand the landfill by 30 feet behind the Kahe Point Homes and is seeking a waiver for which he applied for in June from the state Department of Health.

Harris initially tried to lengthen the time the landfill would be open by 15 years or until 2017, despite the outcry from residents who say the city promised to close the landfill down on schedule or sooner.

Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Waianae, who opposes any expansion of the landfill in her district, criticized the mayor for taking too long to address the issue when he knew for at least a year that capacity was an issue. She called the city's plans to expand Oahu's only landfill "environmental racism," because the people of her community are economically depressed, she says.

In a letter to Director of the State Department of Heath Bruce Anderson, Hanabusa says the city and the landfill operator, Waste Management Inc. of Hawaii, have "failed miserably in their efforts to protect the environment or address the health and safety concerns of the community."

Honolulu City Council Chair John DeSoto, who also represents the Waianae community, also complained about the Harris' administration's management and says he publicly warned the residents two years ago that the Harris administration would ask for an environmental waiver. He said the administration made no attempt to seek alternatives to H-Power and the landfill, known as the Waimanalo Gulch.

Amy Tanaka, who helps manage the Kahe Point Home properties for her brother Robert Mitsuyasu with the help of resident manager Ruth Gabaylo, says thousands of residents of Kahe Point, Ko Olina, Nanakuli, Honokai Hale, Makakilo and Kapolei are victims of the city's ill-laid plans.

"The residents are subject to the hazardous waste byproducts that fill approximately 80 acres of once virgin land," Tanaka says. "The stench from the garbage and burnt trash travels down to homes and causes nausea and sickens the residents. The residents have no way to avoid the awful smell."

Tanaka says the smell that makes her "gag" her when she visits the tenants is "worse than rotting, left-over Aku fish heads that uncouth fisherman dump along the canal before they leave."

She is not the only one who says the neighboring residents have become ill from the smelly landfill. Ruth Gabaylo says her children never had breathing problems until she and her husband moved there to be close to other family members.

Ruth Gabaylo says now she rushes her children in the middle of the night to the hospital and frequently has to put them on breathing machines.

Desiree Gabaylo, Ruth Gabaylo's sister-in-law who lives next door, says during the four years her family has lived next to the landfill that her children have experienced similar breathing troubles. Her 9-year-old son Bernard Jr., never had asthma when they lived in Waipahu, a town several miles away. His troubles started three months after moving to Kahe Point. Her other son, Brandon, also is ill more frequently and seriously.

Her infant daughter Chloe has not shown signs of breathing troubles yet, says Desiree Gabaylo, except for the fact that she sneezes frequently. Others in the large family who live at Kahe Point also have asthma and breathing troubles and sought medical attention.

Though the city administration claims it took a month-long air-quality test near the Kahe Point Homes to make sure there were no toxins coming down from the mountain of rubbish just yards behind their homes, the families there scoff at the city's results and claims the air is fine.

"The black dust is in our houses. It is on everything. Our kids are sick.

Many of us are sick. It didn't used to be like this in the '60s when the houses were first built or before the landfill was opened, no matter what the city tests say," says Ruth Gabaylo.

Another problem, the city does not keep the ditch in front of their homes cleaned out, so the garbage that litters the trees, flutters down into the ditch and when it rains, the ditch sends the garbage back into their yards.

"We've been promised many times there would be changes and the city would stop dumping," says Tanaka. "But instead, the mayor spends money, not on landfills, but on parties on the beach and other kinds of entertainment that make more rubbish that they bring here."

Why haven't the residents just given up and moved to another neighborhood?

They say they can't find homes similar to the $600 two-bedroom low-income homes they rent, for sometimes up to 10 people per home, because they'd normally would rent for a much higher price elsewhere on the island. They also don't feel they should be forced to move from land their families settled on years ago, long before the landfill was there, because the city hopes to break its promise to them.

Paul Connett, one of the leading experts in landfills, recycling, composting and incineration, and a professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University in New York, visited for several hours with the residents of Kahe Point and toured the neighboring landfill.

He says the city should shut down H-Power all together and the landfill and look at other options such as composting and recycling centers. He was appalled at the living conditions of the people living near the landfill.

"There is no reason why anyone should live the way those people do in the Kahe Point Homes. There is no excuse for it. The city should have taken the responsibility to relocate them to better homes on another property away from the landfill," Connett says.

Tim Steinberger, head of the city's environmental department, would not comment on the H-Power and landfill situations, except to say the city is reviewing alternative technologies and options to the expansion. He did not return subsequent calls made to him.

(Malia Zimmerman is the editor of HawaiiReporter.com, a conservative journal based in the state of Hawaii. She can be reached at Malia@HawaiiReporter.com.).

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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