By Anthony Makana Paris, JD & Kamuela Werner, MPH
Hulō! We can all breathe a little easier now that Hawaiʻi has a new law that requires a one-half mile “buffer zone” between ʻōpala and our homes, schools, and hospitals.
What does this mean? Current waste or disposal facilities, including landfills, cannot expand next to our communities! Our children no longer have to play next to new waste or disposal facilities. All of the suffering endured and the decreased life expectancies of those living next to ʻōpala was not in vain. The environmentally racist policies that previously allowed waste or disposal facilities, like the PVT Landfill that operates a mere 500-feet from our homes in Nānākuli, can no longer be implemented in this state. Hawaiʻi has enacted one of the most progressive environmental justice laws in its history.
The story of Hawaiʻi’s new “buffer zone” law is rooted in the moʻolelo of the ʻohana and hui who fought for the health and quality of life of their community in the face of PVT Landfill’s current operations and their proposed relocation plans to remain in Nānākuli, only 750-feet away from our homes.
Two “buffer zone” bills were introduced by the Hawaiian Affairs Caucus of the Hawaiʻi State Legislature, chaired by Rep. Daniel Holt in the House and Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole in the Senate.
These bills received significant opposition through the legislative process from those tied to the waste management industry, county governments, and even the Hawaiʻi Department of Health. These groups pointed out that most, if not all, of the current waste or disposal facilities would be shut down if either of the bills were to pass unamended.
What did that tell advocates of the new law? That in our beloved Hawaiʻi, most waste or disposal facilities, including landfills, are within one-half mile of our homes, schools, and hospitals.
Hawaiʻi’s newest congressman, Kaialiʻi Kahele, a former state senator and a stalwart champion for environmental justice for all peoples across the islands, shared the following during the final vote on the Senate version of the bills, SB2386: “this pattern of marginalizing Indigenous, minority, and low-income communities is a strong example of environmental racism and it can no longer be ignored, and it can no longer go without redress. Every community in Hawaiʻi has the right to a healthful, healthy environment and no community should bear the disproportionate risks and consequences of environmental pollution.”
Joining him was Sen. Kurt Fevella, the Republican Minority Leader, who also stood in strong support of the new law, showing all that public health and safety is not a partisan issue.
Congressman Kahele went on to say during his floor speech that, “toxic coal ash, asbestos, contaminated petroleum soil and thousands of tons of construction and demolition waste have no place within 750-feet of any Hawaiʻi residential neighborhood.”
Rep. Stacelynn Eli, whose district PVT Landfill operates in, did a tremendous job supporting the bills while addressing the concerns of those in the waste management industry and particularly those they employed. Rep. Ryan Yamane, as the former chair of the Water, Land, & Hawaiian Affairs Committee, played a critical role in working with other legislators to address and alleviate almost all of the concerns raised by opponents to the bills.
The Senate voted 24 in favor and only one against, while the House voted 45 in favor and only six against. Gov. David Ige signed SB2386 into law on Sep. 15, 2020, even though he was under formidable pressure to veto the bill.
This monumental environmental justice legislation accomplishes two practical things: it protects our conservation districts, and ultimately our watersheds and drinking water, and it protects our communities from the harmful effects of ʻōpala.
The new law allows all current waste or disposal facilities to continue operation to their natural end, but it prohibits them from expanding at those locations. The new law also prohibits the construction of new ʻōpala facilities within one-half mile of our communities.
This amazing achievement was due to an unprecedented partnership between grassroots efforts, labor unions, elected leaders, Hawaiian Civic Clubs, environmental groups, and the greater civil society. Special thanks go to Hawaiʻi Ironworkers Stabilization Fund Director T. George Paris, Lauren Watanabe of Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi, Maui County Council Vice-Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs Kauaʻi Council President Malia-Nobrega, Uncle Eddie Werner of Nānākuli, and Hawaiʻi Building and Construction Trades Council Director Gino Soquena.
The late Aunty “Dolly” Naiwi, former president of Nānāikapono Hawaiian Civic Club and a Nānākuli High School educator, had a dream to see a flourishing community without landfills. With the passage of Hawaiʻi’s “buffer zone” law, we are much closer to fulfilling her dream.
Friends, ʻohana, and community members, let us celebrate our collective victory. We have successfully made a promise to future generations that landfills will not be in anyone’s backyard.
Anthony Makana Paris is from Nānākuli, Oʻahu, and resides in Kapolei. He is the president of Prince Kūhiō Hawaiian Civic Club and works as a research analyst with the Iron Workers Stabilization Fund. Makana graduated from Nānākuli Elementary, Kamehameha Schools, MIT with a B.S. in environmental science and engineering, the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara, and the William S. Richardson School of Law.
Kamuela Werner is from Māʻili-Nānākuli, Oʻahu, and resides in Kapolei. He is a graduate student in applied cultural anthropology and museum studies, and a research assistant at the Center for Oral History at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM). He graduated from Nānākuli High and Intermediate School, and from UHM with a B.S. in natural resource and environmental management, and master of public health. His current research seeks to document and address the environmental health concerns of Nānākuli residents living adjacent to the PVT Landfill.