PVT landfill operating right next to residences on Mōhihi Street and along Ulehawa Stream. - Photo: Courtesy
By Anthony Makana Paris, MA, JD and Kamuela Werner, MPH

Protect Nānākuli and Hawai‘i Communities from Future Landfills

The Nānākuli community was already facing a massive, ongoing public health crisis — and now COVID-19 is making it much, much worse.

In the heart of Nānākuli lies the 188-acre PVT landfill. PVT is proposing to relocate the landfill across the street, expanding it to the size of 278 football fields and 25 stories high. The current landfill, which has been operating since the 1980s, took in 2,072,539 tons of waste last year – about 42% of all waste generated on O‘ahu. The landfill receives construction and demolition debris, asbestos, wood, plastic, furniture, mattresses and contaminated soil, and uses AES Coal Power Plant ash to cover waste. The landfill also receives gypsum drywall, which breaks down into hydrogen sulfide gas.

Within a half-mile of these dangerous chemicals are the Princess Kahanu and Nānākuli homesteads, and MA‘O organic farm. Within a mile are hundreds of homes, dozens of farms, Nānākuli Elementary, Intermediate and High Schools, Nānāikapono Elementary School, Ka Waihona Public Charter School, Kamehameha Schools’ pre-school, Lili‘uokalani Trust and many churches, parks, stores, medical clinics and kūpuna housing. The new landfill will be only 750 feet away from the nearest residences.

Over 9,000 Native Hawaiians and 3,000 non-Hawaiians living in the two census tracks (light green outline) abutting the PVT landfill have the 2nd and 3rd lowest life expectancies in Hawaiʻi, ten years less than the state average of 82 years. – Photo: Courtesy

According to the CDC, residents of the two census tracks that abut the PVT landfill live ten years less than the state average life expectancy of eighty-two. Families that live next to the landfill have the second and third lowest life expectancies in the entire state. These are our families. Nānākuli has over 9,000 Native Hawaiians, representing the highest per capita population of Native Hawaiians in the state at 72%. Our ‘ohana live in the wahi pana of our ancestor Hina and her son Mäui. Mäui was born at Ulehawa, where he learned fire-making and snared the sun at the summit of Pu‘u Heleakalä so that Hina could dry her kapa.

In addition to lower life expectancy, public health studies show that living near a landfill may harm pregnancies, lower infant birth weights, increase birth defects, and cause headaches, sleepiness, and psychological, central nervous system, and gastrointestinal issues. Residential exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas from landfills is associated with lung cancer, respiratory illnesses and death.

Our Nānākuli ‘ohana have the highest instances of such illnesses in the state and are thus disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19. According to the WHO and CDC, having a respiratory illness significantly increases the chance of dying from COVID-19, as OHA highlighted in their informational brief “COVID-19 and Native Hawaiian Communities.”

This public health crisis in Nānākuli has been going on for decades. The late Aunty Dolly Naiwi, Nānākuli High School educator, homesteader and past president of Nānāikapono Hawaiian Civic Club said “…the landfill is not good for our people…” at a Department of Health hearing on the PVT landfill permit renewal in 2010. Aunty Dolly passed away at age 70 from illness linked to living next to a landfill. Her story is sadly quite common in Nānākuli.

Anthony Makana Paris testifying at the special Sept. 4, 2019 Nānākuli-Māʻili Neighborhood Board meeting in opposition to the relocation of the PVT landfill after delivering a petition in opposition with more than 5,500 signatures. – Photo: Courtesy

In December 2019, Uncle Eddie Werner joined Anthony Makana Paris for a presentation to the Hawaiian Homes Commission on the public health crisis in Nānākuli. At that hearing, Uncle Eddie shared dozens of names of grandparents, parents and children within the same households that have passed away due to illness linked to living next to a landfill.

And yet, plans are still being made to expand the PVT landfill further into Nānākuli, with only a 750-foot “buffer zone” from our community. This despite the fact that the 2012 Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Landfill Site Selection (MACLSS) report – the most comprehensive landfill report done for O‘ahu, with a panel of nine community members of diverse backgrounds and six technical consultants, using legal and community developed criteria – identified eleven other suitable sites for landfills on O‘ahu, each of which allowed for at least a half-mile “buffer zone.” Significantly, the areas in and around Nānākuli were not identified as potential sites for the new landfill by the MACLSS report.

The fact that PVT has applied to expand in Nānākuli is a clear example of environmental racism.

According to Dr. Robert Bullard, environmental racism is “[w]here [a] policy, practice, or directive differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.”

City and County law requires only a 500-foot “buffer zone.” Hawai‘i state law has no “buffer zone” minimum. These laws that allow PVT to operate and relocate a new landfill in Nānākuli are environmentally racist towards Native Hawaiians because landfills, with only a 500-foot “buffer zone,” create a public health crisis that disproportionately affects Native Hawaiians. Future “buffer zones” must be larger to protect all communities.

To address this injustice, on August 20, 2019, the authors of this article stood in solidarity with our kūpuna, Hawaiian Civic Clubs, and hundreds of community members at the Nānākuli-Mā‘ili Neighborhood Board meeting in opposition to the relocation of the PVT landfill. On September 4, 2019, we delivered a petition in opposition to the PVT landfill relocation with more than 5,500 signatures to a special session of the board.

In November, the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs adopted resolution 2019-52, urging the State of Hawai‘i and all counties to create an adequate “buffer zone” around landfills. The Hawaiian caucuses at the state legislature then introduced Senate Bill 2386, which would require a half-mile “buffer zone” between residences, hospitals, and schools and any future landfill.

Our message of justice resonated with many, including the Hawai‘i Building and Construction Trades Council, Hawai‘i Labor Alliance, and the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i who testified in support of SB2386.

However, due to COVID-19, this legislative session is on hold and we will need to revisit this issue in the future as a community. While our struggle for justice started in Nānākuli, we now must fight to protect all communities across Hawai‘i from the ills caused by landfills.

Landfills should not be in anyone’s backyard.

Anthony Makana Paris is from Nānākuli, O‘ahu 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 Nānākuli and Mā‘ili, O‘ahu, resides in Kapolei, and is a National Institutes of Health Minority Health Research Training Scholar, a graduate student in Cultural Anthropology and Museum Studies, and a Research Assistant at the Center for Oral History at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UHM). He graduated from Nānākuli High and Intermediate School, UHM with a B.S. in Natural Resource and Environmental Management, and Master of Public Health.