Questions surround county composting plans

  • Proposed site of county compost facility. (from Hawaii County environmental assessment)

The future appeared muddy Tuesday for a county compost project, leaving members of a County Council committee frustrated that the long-awaited project may never be completed.

The final environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact were completed in December 2018, but outward progress has ceased since then. It’s not known if any of the nine required federal, state and county permits have been applied for, for a project that was supposed to be completed this past summer.

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It will take from one and a half to two years for the facility to come online once Oahu-based contractor Hawaiian Earth Recycling gets a notice to proceed.

County Environmental Management officials didn’t shed any light on the project’s progress, leaving members of the council Agriculture, Water, Energy and Environmental Management Committee unhappy.

Deputy Environmental Management Director Diane Noda and Solid Waste Division Chief Greg Goodale declined to answer questions, but instead, asked for a two-week delay to come back with more complete answers.

“There are so many moving parts that are moving,” Noda said. “There are moving parts that are moving and we’re not able to give you more.”

Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, who asked for the update, said he attended a meeting of the Environmental Management Commission last month and he needed to learn more.

“The composting facility came up and as I listened to the conversation, there’s no movement towards having it done … no permit pulled,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “As far as I understood, it was supposed to be completed in June, then later this year, and it’s October and we have no composting facility.”

Council Chairman Aaron Chung, of Hilo, said he was “very angry about this.” He described the years of planning that so far has gone into the $10.5 million project, which is intended to move the county toward zero waste and take pressure off Puuanahulu, location of the county’s only landfill.

Not only did the council embrace composting as a way to reduce waste and increase soil amendments on the island, it also passed various laws in anticipation of the compost facility opening, including requiring compostable rather than polystyrene, foodware for takeout meals and banning plastic bags at checkouts.

“Is there any talk from the highest level of administration that this contract is going to get canceled?” Chung asked. “I’m beside myself. … We were unified, we had the money. … I don’t know who’s telling the truth. … Tell me, are you guys going to pull the project? … When things are secret, or I get the feeling that people are not telling the truth, it hurts.”

If completed, the facility, to be located at W.H. Shipman Business Park in Keaau, will take yard waste, agricultural waste, food waste and compostable packaging from commercial and residential sources, untreated lumber and pallets, cardboard and other refuse and turn it into compost.

Mulch and compost would be hauled by the contractor to various locations islandwide for sale, according to the 571-page environmental assessment. A minimum of 500 tons of mulch would remain on-site and be made available for free to county residents.

Two testifiers were skeptical that a centralized composting facility is the best course of action, although both agreed the administration needs to be more forthcoming about its status.

“Recycle Hawaii takes the position that the commercial composting facility concept as conceived by DEM was flawed from the start,” said Recycle Hawaii executive director Kristine Kubat. “The Zero Waste Plan adopted by the county council in 2009 clearly defines a small scale distributed system of community based composting facilities, which provides convenient drop-off for waste organics close to the places where they are generated and convenient access for the farmers who need the compost, as the superior strategy for collecting and managing this precious resource.”

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Naalehu resident Jerry Warren went even further. He said he’s witnessed waste haulers hauling off mulch, but it’s never available for residents.

“Is this compost or corruption?” Warren asked. “Today there is no mulch for me or anyone else in Ka‘u. Let’s call this green dollar waste.”

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