One of Maui’s nastiest environmental accidents occurred last July 3. That’s when the DeCoite Construction and Demolition (C&D) landfill in Ma’alaea caught fire. Heavy plumes of smoke forced Maui Police to close North Kihei Road from Honoapi’ilani Highway to the Mokulele-Pi’ilani intersection for hours. To keep noxious smoke and odors from filling their lungs and homes, Ma’alaea residents braved the summer heat by closing their doors and windows. It took firefighters nearly nine hours to put out the blaze.
It wasn’t the first time the landfill ignited. On April 18, 2004 a subsurface fire broke out in the landfill that inundated the Ma’alaea community with fumes and black smoke. Six years earlier, on Jan. 26, 1998, a similar fire broke out and took weeks to extinguish.
Robert Riebling, President of the Ma’alaea Community Association (MCA), knows all about the dump and the occasional fires. He’s complained to county officials that his neighbors have suffered from these blazes: breathing difficulties, headaches, eye irritation, congestion and coughing.
That’s why it wasn’t surprising seeing Riebling at the Jan. 10, 2006 Maui Planning Commission hearing. The agenda included a permit extension for the DeCoite C&D Landfill, and Riebling stood as the main testifier, asking that the county consider a host of special conditions before granting any permit extension. As it happened, Planning Director Mike Foley had already agreed to many of Riebling’s suggestions.
“We are pleased that Director Foley has addressed many of our considerations, Riebling said. “In particular, we welcome the broadening of the definition of combustion in the Special Conditions to include surface, as well as subsurface events because both can generate toxic substances.”
The dump opened in 1996 and certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s the old Pu’uhele cinder cone—one of four small eruptions centers that formed long after the main West Maui volcano went dormant.
“The cinder cone was heavily mined during the 1940’s as a source of rock for the U.S. military,” testified Rory Frampton, a land use planner from Chris Hart and Partners working on behalf of Decoite Trucking, the dump operator.
The excavation eliminated the original cinder cone and left a 100-foot-deep pit nearly 10 acres in size. Labeled an “attractive nuisance,” Frampton said the open puka was a public danger that would have cost landowner Alexander & Baldwin $8 million to $10 million to fill in.
One of Riebling’s most important conditions was that any type of combustion event occurring in the pit—either on the surface or beneath—should trigger mandatory actions on the operator’s part. He also asked that the operator notify an MCA representative and the rest of the community in writing within 24 hours of any combustion event. As it happened, the Planning Department met him halfway, ordering Decoit to verbally alert residences within 24 hours of an incident but allowing seven days for the sending of written notices.
Riebling also suggested that all types of fires trigger sampling and reporting requirements, not just subsurface combustion. But when Frampton suggested that only a subsurface fire should trigger toxic samplings, the commissioners agreed. Though they did stipulate that the test must be done within 30 days of a fire.
And the commission rebuffed Riebling’s request that permit extensions last for just two years. Agreeing that Decoite was working to prevent future fires and to ensure the safety of Maui residents, the commission approved a decade extension.
But all that could prove irrelevant. As the only construction dump on Maui, the Decoite Construction and Demolition Landfill is about to get a massive influx of junk once the Kapalua Bay hotel, Royal Lahaina, Maui Lu and Renaissance Wailea Beach Resort all get torn down. In fact, at the hearing Foley asked Decoite consultant Stephen Joseph what the projected capacity of the dump would be when factoring in these future demolitions and remodels.
“No one has considered this,” Joseph said. “I bet the lifespan would be considerably shortened with such an increase caused by the demo of these major hotels.”
Great news, said Riebling. “Anything which would accelerate the rate at which it is filled up and closed would be regarded as beneficial,” he said. MTW