Operator of state's largest landfill indicted

Hawaii News Now - April 30, 2014
Rick Daysog

A federal grand jury Wednesday afternoon indicted the operator of the state's largest landfill over the spill of millions of gallons of contaminated water and medical waste onto the beaches near the Ko Olina resort more than three years ago.

The panel charged Waste Management Hawaii, which operates the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill in Kapolei with criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

The 13-count indictment covers the company's alleged role in the spills which occurred in December 2010 and January 2011 after three large rainstorms dumped nearly 30 inches of rain into the Waimanalo Gulch landfill.

Also named in the indictment, Waste Management general manager Joe Whelan and environmental protection manager Justin Lottig, who are accused conspiracy and of making numerous false statements to the state Health Department.

The company's Houston-based parent Waste Management Inc. was not charged. Waste Management of Hawaii said the allegations have no merit.

Attorney Bill McCorrison said the company helped prevent the runoff from flowing into and damaging the nearby Kahe Power Plant, which is the state's largest energy producer. He said employees were recognized three years ago by the state and city for their efforts during the emergency.

"It's disturbing to be commended like this and then years later be indicted for criminal misconduct ... perhaps giving the credence to the adage that no good deed goes unpunished," he said.

Waste Management Inc. is one of nation's largest landfill operators. It's under contract with the city to operate the 200-acre Waimanalo Gulch landfill.

The rainstorms hit just weeks before Waste Management completed construction of a $15 million storm water dam and diversion system. That system, which faced years of permitting delays, could have prevented the runoff from causing any damage, the company said.

The indictment said that heavy rains on Dec. 19, 2010 dumped millions of gallons of storm water onto the landfill and mixed with tons of raw sewage, sewage sludge medical waste. The contaminated storm water later washed out into the ocean.

Then during a separate rainstorm on Jan. 12, 2011, Waste Management pumped millions of gallons of contaminated storm water from one of its solid waste cell into the ocean, the grand jury said. The discharge included blood vials, syringes, catheters and raw sewage.

The grand jury alleged that during this spill, a manhole was left open to serve as an overflow drain, which allowed the waste to be dumped into the ocean. According to the indictment, a company engineer told the state Health Department that the manhole had been closed, even though he knew it wasn't.

McCorriston noted that the medical waste was already treated that there was no contamination or damage to coral in the nearby waters.

But local community leaders said they were appalled by what they saw three years ago.

"Personally, I (remember) looking at these hypodermic needles and seeing little vials of blood,"said state Sen. Mike Gabbard, D-Kapolei, who toured the flooded area back in 2011.

"This is needed to send a strong message."

If convicted, Waste Management's local unit faces a fine of up to $500,000 for each count. Lottig faces up to five years in prison for each conspiracy charge and a two-year jail term for making false statements.

Whelan faces up to three years for illegally discharging waste water.

The defendants are expected to be in court for their arraignment in the next few weeks and a trial could start as early as this summer.