Three years after medical waste from Waimanalo Gulch Landfill spilled into the ocean, the federal government is taking action against the landfill’s operator.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has filed a 13-count indictment charging Waste Management of Hawaii Inc. (WMH); Joseph R. Whelan, WMH’s General Manager and a vice president of WMH; and Justin H. Lottig, WMH’s environmental protection manager, with multiple felonies, including knowing violations of the Clean Water Act, conspiracy and making false statements to the Hawaii Dept. of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In January 2011, bags of blood vials, needles and syringes were found scattered along the Leeward coast after heavy rains. According to the city, 200 million gallons of storm water from the landfill also spilled into the ocean.
Related Link: Download a copy of the indictment (.pdf)
After heavy rainfall in December 2010 and January 2011, officials say WMH was permitted to discharge storm water from the landfill to the Pacific Ocean under a permit issued by the Hawaii Dept. of Health’s Clean Water Branch. The storm water was required to go through the landfill’s storm water management system to ensure that it did not come into contact with waste in the landfill before being discharged to Hawaii’s coastal waters. The permit prohibited WMH from causing or contributing to a violation of Hawaii’s state water quality standards.
The indictment alleges that from April 19, 2010 until Dec. 23, 2010, Lottig conspired with employees from an environmental consulting firm to submit false and outdated information to the Clean Water Branch in June, August and September 2010. The purpose of the conspiracy was to convince officials that the landfill had an adequate storm water management system in place in order to renew its storm water discharge permit.
We understand that an indictment has been returned in the U.S. District Court in Honolulu naming Waste Management of Hawaii and two employees as defendants. We believe there is no basis for these charges by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and we intend to vigorously defend against this extraordinary action.
Safety, ethics and environmental protection are core beliefs of our business at Waste Management and we operate our facilities with the utmost regard for the health and safety of employees, neighbors and the environment.
– Waste Management of Hawaii Inc.
The indictment also alleges that from Oct. 27 to Dec. 23, 2010, Lottig and WMH violated the permit by knowingly failing to inform the Clean Water Branch of material changes in the storm water management system that would have indicated an inadequate system was in place.
On Dec. 19, 2010, a heavy rainstorm struck Oahu, and Cell E6, which contained millions of pounds of waste including raw sewage, sewage sludge and medical waste, was flooded with millions of gallons of storm water from up canyon. The indictment alleges that from December 20 to 23, WMH pumped millions of gallons of contaminated storm water from Cell E6 into coastal waters near the Ko Olina Resort.
The indictment alleges that on December 20 and 23, Lottig falsely stated to inspectors that any storm water being discharged from the landfill had not come into contact with waste from Cell E6.
On Jan. 12, 2011, another heavy rainstorm struck Oahu. The indictment alleges that Whelan and WMH caused the discharge of millions of gallons of contaminated storm water to the coastal waters near the Ko Olina beach resort for several hours that evening and/or into the morning of January 13 without authorization. The pollutants included large amounts of medical waste, including blood vials, syringes and catheters, raw sewage and sewage sludge.
William McCorriston, the attorney for Waste Management, denies that the company did anything wrong. McCorriston says he’s shocked by the allegations, because the company actually tried to avoid a bigger disaster from happening.
“It was a real probability that there would be an avalanche of water that smashed into the Kahe Power Plant, which would have taken power out of the whole island,” he said. “It really was (the only choice). We’re given a limited number of options. We chose the option that was best for the people of Hawaii.”
As for the medical supplies, McCorriston says they had all been sterilized and did not pose any harm. “All the medical waste that we received was treated, sterilized,” he said.
The indictment alleges that on Jan. 13 and 20, 2011, an engineer from WMH falsely stated to inspectors that the manhole used for the unauthorized discharges had been closed when, in fact, he knew that it had been left open to serve as an overflow drain.
“Certain administrative things were wrong, but nothing that rises to the level of criminal conduct,” McCorriston responded.
The indictment also alleges that Whelan and WMH submitted false material statements and concealed material information in written submissions to the Clean Water Branch and the EPA.
The City and County of Honolulu will continue to cooperate with the parties in their investigation of the 2010 and 2011 floods of the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill and the discharge of waste into the ocean resulting from the 2011 flood. Corrective measures have been taken to protect against such an event recurring, and the City is satisfied with the ongoing operations of the landfill. As the matter is in litigation, the City has no further comment.”
– Lori Kahikina, Director, Dept. of Environmental Services
If convicted, WMH faces a maximum criminal fine of $500,000 for each count. If convicted of the count charging failing to inform officials of material changes in the storm water diversion system, WMH faces a maximum fine of $50,000 per day of the alleged violation.
If convicted, Lottig faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison for each count of conspiracy and for each count of making a false statement; a maximum of three years for failing to inform the Clean Water Branch of material changes in the storm water diversion system plus a fine of $50,000 per day of the alleged violation; a maximum of two years for each count of providing false information; and a maximum of three years for each count of illegal discharges in violation of the Clean Water Act. If convicted, Lottig also faces a maximum criminal fine of $250,000 for each count.
If convicted, Whelan faces a maximum sentence of three years for each count alleging illegal discharges in violation of the Clean Water Act and a maximum of two years for each count of making false statements; and a maximum criminal fine of $250,000 for each count.